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Direct-to-DVD movies growing in popularity

Unsucsessful TV shows find niche in market

Niche-market TV shows may get canceled, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have another season.

With the direct-to-DVD market, shows that fizzled in the ratings but managed to keep selling DVDs are finding new ways to generate original content.

Some seek a new life on TV, and others are looking to use their established TV and DVD cred to launch new lines of higher-end direct-to-DVD movies — a traditionally down-market arena comprised of lesser action movies and “Bambi” sequels.

With the cult sci-fi cartoon “Futurama” on Fox, David X. Cohen lived a producer’s worst nightmare: “People became fans after it went off the air,” he says.

Unlike the resurrected “Family Guy” — which has gone from cancellation to phenomenal simultaneous success on TBS, Fox, Cartoon Network, in syndication and on DVD — “Futurama’s” similar popularity in boxed sets and in reruns on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim wasn’t enough to earn it a network reprieve. The cold shoulder put Cohen and creator Matt Groening into uncharted waters: They had a property with a fan base but no outlet to connect them.

So Cohen and Groening reassembled the “Futurama” team and went, literally, back to the drawing board, where they planned out four entirely new 90-minute direct-to-DVD movies, starting with the recent “Bender’s Big Score.”

If that sounds like a lot of content, it should. “Futurama” seasons ran between 13 and 22 episodes when the show was on the air, and the movies time out to 16 episodes worth of content. When the movies are broken down into individual shows and aired on Comedy Central in a couple of years, Cohen and Groening will have produced an entire fifth season of the series without any involvement from the network.

“We made it quite clear to them (Fox) that we would like to be un-canceled,” Cohen says. “We’re back to 20th Century Fox Television — the studio. The network is out of the loop completely, and if they want to put us back on the air again, we would be very interested in that.”

“Futurama’s” approach may seem backwards — using DVD popularity to market a TV show, instead of the other way around — but thus far the plan has worked. In its first week on sale, “Bender’s Big Score” reportedly sold almost 100,000 copies, grossing $1.97 million.

“Futurama” is using DVD to tap the sci-fi market — a demo traditionally interested in the bells and whistles that the tech-friendly format can provide. Joining the geekfest, DC Comics and Warner Home Video have been producing direct-to-DVD animated films that combine well-loved comicbook stories like Darwyn Cooke’s “New Frontier” with a version of the DC-animated series “house style” tweaked to look like specific comicbook artists (like Cooke).

Since none of the DC-animated shows (like “Justice League Unlimited” and “Batman: The Animated Series”) are airing original episodes, the new movies fill a large vacuum. Jeff Brown, Warner Home Video senior VP and GM, TV, family and animation, is quick to point out that the studio doesn’t consider the DVD movies a replacement for the TV shows.

“By going to video first and not following a traditional ratings model for TV networks and not marketing to children, we could be more faithful to the stories,” Brown says. DC animation mastermind Bruce Timm produces the shows, and the first DVD in the series, “Superman: Doomsday” (based on the “Death of Superman” comics), has successfully banked on the crossover between fans of the comicbooks and fans of the cartoons.

Reported sales for “Doomsday” come to about 600,000 units since its Sept. 18 release — 30% ahead of what sources say Warner was predicting for the title.

The next DVD in the series, “New Frontier,” is tracking ahead of its expected preorders for its Feb. 26 release, and Warner has planned a series of “Batman” shorts by well-known anime directors to coincide with the 2008 release of “The Dark Knight” on the bigscreen.

Cartoon budgets are low enough to make these projects interesting to studios even if they fizzle, but live-action shows are venturing only tentatively into DVD originals. Even then, the properties are still mostly those of the fan-supported sci-fi persuasion.

Live-action producers have had their fingers burnt on this kind of experimentation: The quickly-canceled “Firefly” had enough buzz to generate the $39 million “Serenity,” but the film flopped (its worldwide gross was almost exactly the same as its budget) while the DVDs flourished, selling about 2 million copies on their first go-round (there’s a new 2-disc set out now).

The jury is still out on the existing live-action direct-to-DVD content: J. Michael Straczynski recently returned to his show “Babylon 5” with “Lost Tales: Voices in the Dark,” the first in a projected “Lost Tales” series. Warner hedged its bets — the 75-minute “Voices” stands alone, like “Bender’s Big Score” — and hasn’t planned a follow-up, though Straczynski has said he’d like to continue the shows. The Sci-Fi network’s flagship show, “Battlestar Galactica,” is also flirting with DVD-exclusive content in the form of an extended version of “Razor,” a two-episode stand-alone story that aired earlier this year.

If DVD hasn’t revolutionized the market for original TV series, it’s at least on its way to changing the landscape significantly.

With the format’s miniscule production cost-to-retail-price ratio, Cohen and others are hoping “Bender’s Big Score” is at the vanguard of a completely new business model, where “the fans have the power to bring a show back to life.” If not, Cohen says, “We’ll see what we’re reincarnated as next time.”

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