Execs who guide studios' made-for-DVD units

STEVE BERSCH
Acquisitions Group president
Sony Pictures Worldwide

Despite bigger budgets and higher-quality productions, it’s still the rare star who purposely signs on to reprise a role in a sequel going straight to DVD.

But over the last year, Sony has lured back two — Casper Van Dien for “Starship Troopers 3″ and Wesley Snipes in “Art of War II: Betrayal.”

Steve Bersch points to both as proof of direct-to-video’s changing image in the industry. Before joining Sony in February, Bersch launched Fox Home Entertainment’s DVD premiere unit, overseeing releases such as 2006’s “The Sandlot 2,” which sold 1.5 million units. At Sony, his role has broadened to include all studio acquisitions and producing made-for-DVD films — an area he believes will continue to grow with Blu-ray, the Internet and video-on-demand.

Bersch says Sony hopes Blu-ray “will keep the packaged-media format fresh and growing.”

With regard to online, Sony is open to debuting films in that way “if the right opportunity comes along,” he reports, but for now the focus is on producing a dozen or so DVD premiere sequels a year and some original productions.

Jennifer Netherby

BILL CLARK
President
Anchor Bay Entertainment/Anchor Bay Films

Anchor Bay has long been known for churning out slasher pics and other direct-to-video movies with limited appeal.

But with more competition than ever from the major studios, Bill Clark is charting a new course for the indie, building up a library of higher-quality films that appeal to a broader audience.

At Anchor Bay, he’s trimmed back the release slate from 100 movies in 2008 to 75 for 2009 to focus on acquiring stronger product that will sell more units.

Anchor Bay already has proved it can build new brands with its fitness business, where it has developed its “10 Minute Solutions” line into a top seller, helping drive its fitness sales up 42% since 2007.

“You need something to differentiate yourself in the direct-to-video world from all the choices out there, and quality is a big part of it,” Clark says. “In our case, we’re not a big studio where you’re building sequels off $100 million blockbuster movies.”

Anchor Bay’s release slate is starting to reflect the changes with “Alphabet Killer,” starring Eliza Dushku; “Friday the 13th” documentary “His Name Was Jason”; and “Dead Space,” a prequel to the Electronic Arts vidgame.

Jennifer Netherby

LOUIS FEOLA
President
Paramount Famous Prods.

Louis Feola helped recast the made-for-video business for the DVD era. Now he’s preparing for opportunities offered by Blu-ray, the Internet and any other home entertainment platform that emerges.

During his tenure heading Universal’s direct-to-vid biz, Feola turned ’90s animated kid hit “The Land Before Time” into one of the most successful made-for-video franchises, with more than a dozen sequels that continue to sell. He followed it with made-for sequels to “Bring It On” and “American Pie,” both of which set DVD sales records.

Now Feola’s mining Paramount’s catalog. First up is sequel “Without a Paddle: Nature’s Calling,” due on DVD this month, followed by a “Road Trip” sequel.

While those two will go straight to disc, Feola says some Paramount Famous product will premiere on TV or even online, as Paramount’s “Jackass 2.5″ did in 2007.

Jennifer Netherby

DIANE NELSON
President
Warner Premiere

Diane Nelson won’t predict what home entertainment content might look like a few years from now, but she knows how she’d like to get there.

“This time it’s about pushing the envelope of where content can live and be consumed,” Nelson says. “We know Blu-ray and downloads from the Web will have an impact, but really it’s about creating a top-shelf experience, like in our digital ‘Watchmen’ comics, so that people will be interested in exploring what we offer them.”

At Warner Premiere, Nelson oversees a production company that creates content with a focus in three major areas: material that has a relationship to a well-established filmmaker or brand the audience knows, like the recent “Another Cinderella Story”; releases that are developed alongside a theatrical release in production such as “Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd: Out of Control”; and original material like the adaptations of the “Clique” teen novels produced by Tyra Banks.

Karen Idelson

MEREDITH ROBERTS
Senior VP-g.m.
DisneyToon Studios

As competitors crowd into the made-for-video business it created in the 1990s, DisneyToon Studios is rebooting.

Now helmed by Pixar heads Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, the studio is slashing the number of releases it churns out each year from six or more to just one. Instead of sequels to successful theatricals, it is giving minor characters from its classics centerstage in spinoff films tied to books, toys, games and other products.

Meredith Roberts, who joined the division a year ago, guided “Tinker Bell,” the first release under the new strategy, to sales of 2 million units during its first week in October. The CGI original is the first of four films planned in its fairy franchise.

It’s all about considering “what can we do that gives (families) a different experience that makes our product stand out from the crowd,” Roberts says.

Blu-ray is at the center of the studio’s new strategy. “The direct-to-video business is suffering,” she says. “There’s some hope that Blu-ray technology will breathe some life into this.”

While Roberts handles the animated side of the business, worldwide home entertainment head Bob Chapek directs the studio’s live-action DVD premiere slate.

Jennifer Netherby

GLENN ROSS
Exec VP-g.m.
Universal Studios Family Prods.

We don’t call them direct-to-video movies, we call them DVD originals,” says Glenn Ross.

The distinction is not just semantic. Working with Craig Kornblut, head of the studio’s homevideo unit, Ross turned nontheatrically released features premiering on DVD into a new profit center for Universal via films with prominent casts, high production values and significant marketing budgets.

“Direct-to-video used to be a humongous success if it sold 150,000 to 200,000 copies,” Ross notes. “All of our titles have sold at least 1 million.”

One of the most successful DVD originals is “The Scorpion King: Rise of a Warrior,” based on the blockbuster Mummy franchise. The “Bring It On” series, a runaway hit with teenage girls, has spawned four new direct-to-video sequels.

In sync with the unit’s family orientation, releases are rated no higher than PG-13. The raunchier “American Pie” DVD sequels were released through Universal’s Rogue division.

One virtue of DVD originals is their long shelf life, Ross observes. “They don’t show the standard erosion curves,” he says. “Most DVD products based on theatrical features register the bulk of their sales in the first 10 days. Our DVD originals fall off slightly and then plateau for a long time.”

Universal’s latest entry into the marketplace was the Dec. 26 release of “Beethoven’s Big Break,” which fits handily into a nascent dogcentric zeitgeist.

Jack Egan

TOM SIEGRIST
Sr. VP, production
20th Century Fox Home Ent.

DAVID BIXLER
Sr. VP, acquisitions
20th Century Fox Home Ent.

Tom Siegrist and David Bixler arrived at 20th Century Fox with the charge of growing the made-for-DVD original movie business — films that in the past have received smirks from critics and shrugs from consumers.

No longer. Starting in 2005, the made-for-DVD industry found itself in the midst of a growth spurt — up nearly 40% in yearly releases — and higher overall revenues. Fox has grabbed a sizable piece of the pie, producing DVD original movies spun off from theatrical and TV franchises, such as “Dr. Dolittle” and “Garfield.” Production costs average a modest $2 million to $4 million apiece.

Brand-name movie titles are crucial to DVD originals. “To be successful in the homevideo original programming market, you have to have a recognizable franchise,” Bixler says.

Though Blu-ray, video-on-demand and other new digital outlets are burgeoning, none of this is cannibalistic, Bixler says: “Blu-ray is incremental (businesswise) to standard (DVDs, and) it allows us more creativity.”

“We feel what works best is action, horror (and) family (genres),” says Siegrist, which is similar to what works theatrically. Adds Bixler: “We are just a reflection of the general public’s interest in those genres to begin with.”

Fox produces four to six DVD originals a year. In the future, look for more familiar brand-name titles, with the added marketing punch of such partners as World Wrestling Entertainment.

“We have a joint production of ‘Behind Enemy Lines 3′ with WWE,” says Siegrist, who notes Fox will benefit from the cross-marketing of WWE’s TV shows and actors.

Wayne Friedman

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