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Video bows mint coin

Pic franchises mine straight-to-video gold

For production charts and complete tracking of original video programming being produced for movies, DVD special editions, the Internet and interactive applications, see Variety sister publication Video Business.

Despite “Mission: Impossible 2” and new plans for “Terminator” and “Indiana Jones” follow-ups, the most popular spawning ground for sequels is not the bigscreen but homevid.

With production costs that are a fraction of bigscreen fare, direct-to-vid is now a global business worth more than $1 billion per year, according to industry estimates.

And that doesn’t count the tens of millions more the studio picks up in sales of toys, music, clothing and other licensing and merchandising revenue generated by such titles.

“Beethoven’s 3rd,” “An American Tail: Mystery of the Night Monster,” “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins” and “Dragonheart: A New Beginning” will all make their premiere on homevideo in late July and August. A month later, Disney will unveil the first sequel to “The Little Mermaid” on video.

While the term “direct to video” usually conjures up images of erotic thrillers, horror quickies and low-budget actioners, production has heated up on live-action and animated films, many aimed at the family market.

Made-for-vid has also proven to be a low-cost way to develop what could turn out to be a theatrical release.

Disney’s “Toy Story 2” was initially intended to premiere on video before the project was perceived to be worthy of a bigger platform. (The film has grossed $483.3 million in worldwide box office.) “The Tigger Movie,” released theatrically this year, was also developed for video.

Toon bounty

But even when the studio sticks to the straight-to-vid plan, the results are often bountiful. “The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride” and “The Return of Jafar” (the sequel to “Aladdin”) alone generated more than half a billion dollars in retail sales in the U.S. — and more than $350 million of that went straight to Disney, according to Adams Media Research.

A few of these family franchises originated on video; Warner Home Video has sold more than 15 million copies of its films featuring the Olsen twins. Most of the franchises, however, are based on a feature hit.

Universal Studios Home Video, for example, has generated six sequels to the bigscreen pic “The Land Before Time”; they have collectively generated $1 billion in worldwide retail sales. And the studio reaps more than half of that in wholesale revenue.

Even a modest-selling video premiere title can generate $25 million-$50 million in revenue for a studio.

Successful model

Some say the video industry was long overdue in creating quality, high-profile original programming in the way that theatrical, broadcast network, syndication, cable and even Internet companies do for their industries.

Disney’s Buena Vista Home Video has more than a dozen animated sequels in various stages of development, including a third installment of “The Lion King” and sequels to “The Lady and the Tramp” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Universal has ramped up its output of video premieres to six to eight titles per year, covering both animation and live action.

Video premieres now represent more than 10% of Disney’s market-leading video sales business, says Mitch Koch, general manager of Disney’s Buena Vista Home Entertainment.

Koch says Buena Vista reserves its best release dates and its biggest marketing budgets for its two or three video premieres each year.

Why?

Because with the built-in brand recognition of both the Disney name and the theatrical film on which they are based, video premieres are practically guaranteed moneymakers.

Mega-Mouse

Disney’s vid premieres are generally among the bestselling video releases each year, with “The Lion King II” (15 million units) and “The Return of Jafar” (10 million) ranking among some of the biggest-selling theatrical films on video of all time.

The only question is how much profit can be made, which is why video premieres get such a strong push.

In addition to the live-action “Beethoven’s 3rd,” starring Judge Reinhold and Julia Sweeney, and “Dragonheart: A New Beginning,” Universal Studios Home Video is working on the fourth sequel to “An American Tail,” the first sequel to “Balto” and a “Beethoven’s 4th.” Last year, the studio enjoyed strong sales of its live-action sequel “K-911,” featuring Jim Belushi, who starred in the original film “K-9.”

Warner Home Video has developed a robust franchise of movies featuring Scooby Doo and the Olsen twins, with new installments of each premiering this fall, along with new feature-length versions of the TV series “Batman Beyond” and Looney Tunes character Tweety Bird.

Universal has sold more than 45 million copies worldwide of “The Land Before Time” series. The studio has completed production on a seventh edition, is working on an eighth and has the ninth and tenth chapters in development.

Louis Feola, president of Universal Family and Home Entertainment Prods., the unit that spearheads production of most of the studio’s video originals, was president of Universal Studios Home Video when the studio released “The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure” in 1994.

Its success led him to experiment successfully with a variety of vid premieres, including two live-action sequels to “Darkman” and a sequel to “Tremors.”

Feola’s branch was created in 1998. Although the U unit will take a chance on some original productions, the primary focus is on extending branded franchises that have global appeal.

Talent agents have been huge supporters, he says. With budgets on some projects ranging as high as $8 million, he says agents recognize that their clients will be doing quality work on movies that are on a par with some theatrical productions.

Celeb support

Stars have embraced video premieres in the same way that they are open to high-profile cable pics (with similarly scaled-down salaries compared to features). Robin Williams reprised his Genie voice for “Aladdin and the King of Thieves,” and Rick Moranis continued with his character in the live-action “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.”

Tim Allen and Tom Hanks had signed on for “Toy Story 2” before it was decided to take it theatrical. Even though Patrick Warburton will be the voice of Buzz Lightyear for this fall’s traditionally animated Saturday-morning TV cartoon series, Allen wanted to re-create his character for the “Toy Story” vid original being released on Aug. 8. William Shatner has also joined the project — as a singer — to perform “To Infinity and Beyond” over the closing credits.

The “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command” prequel will serve as a kind of homevideo pilot movie for the new TV series, just as “The Return of Jafar” did in 1994 for the intro that fall of the “Aladdin” TV series.

The video market has grown to the point where there is no longer as much of a stigma attached to a video premiere.

Sometimes, as with “The Lion King II,” studios make strategic decisions relating to schedules and other marketing issues to introduce a theatrical-caliber movie to the homevideo market instead.

Production costs for video projects run from $500,000 to $15 million — considerably smaller than theatrical budgets. While high-profile “event” productions skew toward the high end of that range, most video projects fall in the $1 million-$4 million range.

Video premieres have also proved a lucrative market for stage productions, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber works.

Universal has sold millions of copies of “Cats” (a production mounted exclusively for homevideo) and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which mixed original TV-style production elements with a specially staged performance.

The studio is also in post-production on a revised stage version of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” And there are reports of discussions with Glenn Close to star in a video version of “Sunset Boulevard.”

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