Can discs fill tills for HBO?

Vid unit pays big for DVD rights

HBO Video is buying more independent movies to help compensate for the slowdown in high-octane original series made by its HBO parent.

Vid arm, which has raked in hefty coin from DVD sales of “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos,” is ponying up between $500,000 and $2 million for DVD rights to movies such as “Big Stan,” the directorial debut of Rob Schneider, and “The OH in Ohio,” a $5 million sex comedy from Ambush Entertainment starring Parker Posey and Danny DeVito.

HBO Video prexy Henry McGee uses the phrase “back to the future” to describe the label’s shifting focus, noting its slate consisted mainly of theatrical movies from indie distributors until the late ’90s, when HBO got very aggressive in creating original programming.

Acquisitions took a back seat during the reign of “Sex” and “Sopranos.” But the former has long since stopped production, and the latter is winding down to its final eight episodes. Recent HBO series such as “Big Love,” “Rome,” “Deadwood” and “Carnivale” have not generated anywhere near the viewing levels or critical accolades, which may well put a damper on their eventual DVD sales and rentals.

But McGee rejects the notion that HBO Video is returning to movies because it’s afraid the new series will underperform in DVD, citing the brisk business the first season of “Deadwood” has racked up, the solid DVD performance of “Entourage” and the high expectations for the first season of “Rome.”

The indie pickups “will be an adjunct to HBO’s base” of original series, McGee said.

Besides “Big Stan,” a $10 million production from Crystal Sky in which Schneider also stars, and “The OH in Ohio,” recent acquisitions include “Mini’s First Time,” a $6 million comedy with Luke Wilson and Alec Baldwin, and “Red Dust,” starring Hilary Swank and directed by Tom Hooper. “Red Dust” will premiere on disc, but the other pics will have theatrical runs before arriving in stores.

The label will share Picturehouse theatricals with sister company Fine Line Video. The next three Picturehouse movies for HBO Video are “Last Days,” “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” and “The Notorious Bettie Page.”

Vid label is still mounting lavish DVD packages for its skeins. The first season of “Rome,” for example, comes with 20 hours of extras.

DVD sales of original programming like “Sex” and “The Sopranos” have contributed to a thriving ancillary market for series, miniseries and made-for-HBO movies, which funnels about 20% of the $1 billion in pure profits harvested every year by the pay cabler.

HBO Video started its push into buying movies from independents late last year with the release of 2001 romantic comedy “The Whole Shebang,” starring Stanley Tucci and Bridget Fonda, from 2K Media/Original Voices; Bauer Martinez Pictures’ 2004 noir drama “Out of Season,” with Dennis Hopper; and IFC Films’ comedy drama “Duane Hopwood,” starring David Schwimmer.

Reliable figures for DVD sales of indie movies are hard to come by, but Nielsen reports HBO Video has sold 21,998 units of “Last Days,” whereas “Duane Hopwood” is a flop, selling only 897 units. (These numbers don’t include Wal-Mart sales.)

But don’t go by these relatively modest grosses, McGee said.

“We think there are tremendous opportunities for all of these movies in DVD,” he said. “The DVD business may have plateaued, but the plateau is so high up that we’ll do just fine.”

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