Studios dizzy over DVD divisions

H'wood reaps hefty returns with made-for spinoffs

They don’t give out Oscars for them. Glamorous star vehicles, they’re not. Yet studios can’t get enough of made-for DVDs for a very simple reason: They make money without much of a risk.

In the past two years, studios have increasingly made a made-for push as a way to generate easy coin. Nearly every major has a department devoted to this product, with MGM the latest to jump on the bandwagon. The Lion is planning a dozen made-for DVD projects next year, averaging $2.5 million apiece.

So, what makes these projects so different from direct-to-vid of years past?

For one thing, budgets are consistently higher, in the $3 million to $5 million range, occasionally going as high as $10 million.

For another, the range has been broadened beyond kidvid and undistinguishable action fare.

Current projects revisit feature films as varied as “Dukes of Hazzard,” “Butterfly Effect,” “Bring It On” and “Carlito’s Way” and even the “Futurama” TV skein.

And these projects are more polished than their predecessors.

But more to the point, they’re selling.

The family-friendly sequel to “The Sandlot” bowed on homevid last May, a dozen years after the bigscreen original, and generated almost $20 million for Fox homevid.

It was soon followed by U’s “Carlito’s Way” prequel, also a dozen years after the original. The tyro helming effort by Michael Bregman, who produced the original pic with his father, Martin, generated a healthy $22.1 million.

Fox’s spinoff of “Family Guy,” “Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story,” produced by its TV division, generated a whopping $78 million to become the top-selling DVD made-for last year. That performance bested Disney’s “Mulan II,” a more traditional DVD sequel.

The success of these pics, along with the boffo fourth installment in the “American Pie” franchise at year’s end, made made-fors downright respectable.

Fox has tripled its DVD premiere output, venturing outside kid-friendly programming with an upcoming sequel to “Wrong Turn.” Other studios are producing gangster pics like the “Carlito’s Way” prequel, horror titles, teen sequels and concert films.

“When growth slows, you hit upon another way to make money,” says Fox homevid chief operating officer Steve Bersch. “There’s always been a huge amount of activity in the indie arena. Now the studios are getting involved.”

With lower budgets, cheaper talent and far lower marketing costs than theatricals, direct-to-vid spinoffs can easily generate several times their cost. MGM, for example, figures it can make $4 million profit on made-fors that cost $2.5 million.

“The risk-reward ratio looks good from a business perspective,” says New Line homevid senior VP acquisitions and programming Kevin Kasha. “There are lots of great stories and ideas that don’t necessarily have the audience to justify the $20 million-plus of P&A that it would cost to release it theatrically.”

Warner, which plans to produce 10-15 projects annually under a new partnership between the theatrical and homevid divisions, ratcheted down the “Dukes” prequel budget to $5 million with lower-cost talent, replacing Jessica Simpson with thesp April Scott (“Deal or No Deal”). Also presumably left out were the expensive car chases in the 2005 feature. (The movie pulled in $80 million domestically but largely fizzled overseas.)

Although Sony has been producing direct-to-disc titles for years under its Screen Gems arm, rivals credit U homevid topper Craig Kornblau with really pushing the boundaries — and budgets — outside kidvid. After years overseeing the “Land Before Time” animated kidvid line for the studio, he championed more broadly targeted fare.

“You have a business that makes $24 billion, while theatrical makes $8 billion. Why aren’t we making product for it?”

Kornblau reasons.

So he ramped up the budgets and the marketing push. U is among the most aggressive, spending as much as $10 million on projects, and backing its bows with millions in marketing support.

“Look at the success Craig had on ‘Carlito’s Way’; that was a gamble,” Lionsgate prexy Steve Beeks says. “Do that and you miss and it can really hurt you.”

U’s success nonetheless has inspired Beeks to check his own library for possible remakes. (Budget-minded studios like Lionsgate typically earmark $1.5 million $3.5 million for their productions and spend considerably less promoting them.)

Without a box office campaign or high-profile cast, studios try to tap into existing franchises.

“Brand is everything,” says Clint Culpepper, prexy of Screen Gems, which produces 12 to 20 direct-to-disc titles annually. “Without brand awareness it’s hard to get shelf space.”

Like many a sequel, these offerings can be formulaic.

Usually producers bring back at least one actor from the original, but barring that, they turn the movie into a prequel to get around continuity issues.

Thus U manufactured a flimsy pretext for Eugene Levy to be at band camp in the fourth installment of “American Pie,” which lacks franchise stalwarts Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan and Seann William Scott.

Despite their absence, U was able to generate boffo sales — now past 2 million units — by sticking to the raunchy formula of the previous installments of “Pie.” Porn star Ginger Lynn Allen’s willingness to doff her top probably didn’t hurt word-of-mouth among teen boys, either.

Casting is sometimes made with an eye toward retail favorites or TV shows popular with the target aud.

Country singer Toby Keith, who stars in an upcoming Paramount direct-to-disc title that debuts on sister cabler CMT, is popular at Wal-Mart, notes Par homevideo senor VP Ellen Pittleman. Other projects tie into MTV or Par library titles such as “Save the Last Dance.”

“We sort of balance original stuff we’re able to brand with things people recognize and straight-ahead sequels,” Pittleman says. “I’m interested in whatever we can make money on.”

Other studios are exploring new types of genre fare for made-fors.

Warner has created a Raw Feed brand for horror, while New Line is adapting Danielle Steel romance novels and urban fare from Russell Simmons. Fox’s TV division hopes to replicate its “Family Guy” success with a made-for based on “Futurama.”

These projects may not have the big budgets of their theatrical counterparts, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience for them, New Line’s Kasha says.

“If the audience didn’t want them, we wouldn’t be making them.”

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