Raunchy releases generate more money

Back in the days of VHS, a grisly tape called “Faces of Death” ruled grade-school sleepovers.

Boys would snag copies from elder siblings of the “banned in 40 countries” film and its sequels, which offered sometimes-real, often-fake views of public executions, crocodile attacks and fatal boxing matches. The clips doubtlessly would be chased with a Playboy video purloined from the closet of a friend’s father.

Twenty years later, guys don’t need to ask around for an “Ultimate Fighting Championship” or titillating “Girls Gone Wild” DVD — they simply hit the local Best Buy or Amazon.com.

Such fringe programming — which often enjoys a lucrative audience niche but also has baggage of one form or another — is now so accessible that it’s constituting an ever-larger slice of a overall homevid pie that generated about $24 billion in consumer spending last year.

And like it or not, these properties are among the few growth spots that DVD has left.

“Girls Gone Wild” founder Joe Francis, for instance, may be spending spring break in jail, but his DVD franchise purportedly will surpass annual sales of $100 million this year.

The salacious “Girls” series, produced by Francis’ Mantra Films, built its cred off of Mardi Gras breast-baring and colorful direct-marketing campaigns as seen on latenight TV. Mantra president and COO Scott Barbour says the company also has long done business with Amazon.com as well as specialty brick-and-mortar chains like Barnes & Noble and Trans World’s FYE.

“What’s strange,” he notes about the genre he calls “mature lifestyle video,” is that “the entire segment is stronger than ever — yet the major distribution channel is narrower.”

Barbour doesn’t expect the climate of “political correctness” to dissipate among Stateside big-box retailers who control the DVD market, but he muses that download-to-own technology will soon rejuvenate Mantra’s direct-marketing model.

Still, Mantra is looking to hook up with Wal-Mart and Target on a new DVD line. “GGW: Flirt,” Barbour says, “is like ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ but without any nudity — and much more calm.” The spinoff launched this month through Mantra’s current distribution network, but Mantra expects it “to go much more mainstream.”

Along with DVDs of girls who like to party, Amazon.com shoppers can fill their carts with such ultraviolence as “World’s Wildest Street Fights 2,” “Urban Warfare Vol. 1: Bumfights,” and “Prison Fights Vol. 2: Inmates vs. Cops,” from a gaggle of shadowy independents.

(Oh, and Amazon sells the “Faces of Death” collection, too.)

The online retailer declines to comment on sales of fringe discs, though it notes such titles don’t appear on its DVD homepage promos.

According to one industry analyst, even as sex and violence on disc remain more of an online or direct-marketing play, consumers increasingly can find these DVDs in the corners of specialty retailers. The more aboveboard franchises will sell upwards of 10,000 units (more than $100,000) across brick-and-mortar outlets alone.

“They’re not huge,” the analyst says of the sales generated by individual titles. But taken together, he adds, “they’re not small, either.”

Just as the fringe field has attracted major retailers, it has intrigued mainstream DVD distributors as well.

Image Entertainment — a distributor of content ranging from the Criterion Collection to Discovery Channel docus to standup comedy to live music concerts — still maintains a small line of upscale adult pics, including “Hip-Hop Honeys” and “Playboy: Women of Wal-Mart.” Other more raucous sets like “Extreme Chickfights: Armed and Dangerous” appear in Image’s special-interest category.

Image’s chief marketing officer, Jeff Fink, opines that in this whatever-you-wanna-call-it sector, only the brands that have established themselves will find a home at physical retail.

“Shelf space is shrinking, not expanding,” he says. “The marketplace is more saturated than it’s ever been. If you haven’t built the brand, capturing shelf space with niche product — especially more mature type of product — is a very difficult proposition.”

Fink points out that two of the most supportive retailers for mature-audience discs — music specialty chains Musicland and Tower Records — recently went the way of the dodo.

With stronger-than-ever online and direct-marketing vehicles, however, brands can be built very quickly. Take the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) franchise, which in the span of a few years crossed over from banned bloodsport to the presumed successor of boxing.

Once branded as “human cockfighting” by Sen. John McCain, who personally led a nationwide crusade against it in the ’90s, UFC now draws an audience well over half a million viewers for its PPV events.

The male mixed martial arts spectacle has long prohibited hair pulling and groin strikes in its cage matches, but new DVDs from Lionsgate celebrate belt matches from the “no rules” early days.

For all its success, UFC seems to have taken its marketing pages straight out of Vince McMahon’s playbook.

McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has rounded up a multimillion-dollar DVD posse around the Undertaker and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Publishing some 30 titles annually, the company saw gross DVD sales jump 52% in 2006 on the performance of “Wrestlemania 22″ (425,000 units sold).

A 20-disc boxed set covering two decades of WWE’s “WrestleMania” has raked in more than $10 million since its November 2005 release.

Meanwhile, a DVD recap of “Wrestlemania 23″ — in which McMahon loses a head-shaving bet to none other than Donald Trump — drops in May.

Inking all the exclusive editions and positioning deals that a Disney would with the Wal-Marts and Best Buys of the world, WWE switched distributors last fall from Sony Music Video to Genius Products, in a bid to further expand its homevid biz.

Without question, WWE is a mainstream property, dominating the sports DVD sector. But Joel Satin, WWE Corp.’s homevid veep, says some retailers aren’t ready to call even wrestling good, clean, family fun.

“As a brand, we do run up against (a stigma) in all our different business units,” he admits. “But when our DVDs kept moving through, bucking the industry trend, I don’t think (chains) could turn the other way.”

Regardless of whether retailers harbor “a bias against us,” Satin says, “ultimately they want to sell product.”

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