DVDs spawn a new star system

As studios rake in rising revs, talent wants a bigger piece of vid action

Is Vin Diesel a bigger star than Tom Cruise? Is Will Ferrell the new Tom Hanks?

Not exactly, but if you look at the ranks of the actors who are perpetually at the top of the DVD sales charts, you have to wonder whether a new celebrity hierarchy will emerge from the DVD gold rush.

Nobody is rushing to label actors as DVD stars. Studios don’t want to give actors and their agents a reason to ask for more money. And, to the talent, “Huge on DVD!” still sounds like a label best reserved for straight-to-video stars like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

But as DVD revenues become more important to studios — in 2003, DVD sales totaled $11.9 billion, according to Variety sibling Video Business, nearly 30% bigger than the $9.2 billion in U.S. box office that year — studios began to look for talent who could move units at Wal-Mart the same way Cruise fills seats at the multiplex.

So, who are these stars of DVD?

  • Will Ferrell. Frat-house laffer “Old School,” for instance, grossed $75 million at theaters in the U.S., but it then went on to sell an impressive $83 million worth of DVDs.

  • Vin Diesel. Has been in two pics that outperformed on DVD. “The Fast and the Furious” grossed $144 million at the box office but then sold $132 million on DVD. His follow-up, “XXX,” sold $97 million on DVD after grossing $142 million at the wickets.

  • Ben Affleck. Has two DVD successes under his belt with “Pearl Harbor,” which did $144 million on DVD (vs. $198 million gross) and “Daredevil” which made $51 million on DVD after grossing $102 million on the bigscreen.

  • Reese Witherspoon. It’s not only boys who can be DVD stars. Her “Sweet Home Alabama” sold $98 million on DVD against $127 million at theaters.

  • Tobey Maguire. “Spider-Man” was huge on DVD, with sales of more than $215 million. But so were tights-less titles like “Seabiscuit,” which has sold $99 million in discs after a $120 million box office run.

  • Denzel Washington. Nearly equaled the “Training Day” box office of $77 million with $74 million on DVD.

  • Matt Damon. Part of the reason Universal made a sequel to “Bourne Identity” is that it sold $89 million worth of DVDs after grossing $122 million in theaters.

  • Kevin Smith. Directors can have big DVD followings, too. “Jay & Silent Bob” sold $36 million on DVD after a moderate $30 million in theaters, which may explain why Smith has become a pitchman for Panasonic’s recordable DVD player.

As these stars emerge, they and their agents are likely to demand a bigger cut of the action.

“The studios may take someone’s homevideo prowess into consideration,” says Ken Kamins, partner at Key Creatives, “but in private, not in public, because no one wants to compensate anyone for it.”

DVD dollars are worth more to the studios than box office dollars, because they keep the lion’s share of homevideo revenues.

Usually, studios only put 20% of their DVD receipts into the pot that is divvied up among gross players, a deal point that is known as a video-to-gross ratio. Even those with the richest deals in Hollywood, like Steven Spielberg or Cruise, are getting video-to-gross ratios of no more than 50%.

In their ongoing talks with the Writers Guild, studios have cited spiraling talent and marketing costs as justifications for closely guarding their DVD windfall.

But scribes won’t likely be the last to demand a higher share of the DVD lucre.

Ultimately, it is likely that DVD sales will reach a point where the figures will help determine the price of an actor or director, just as foreign box office did.

Foreign B.O. used to be an afterthought in the movie biz, gravy that could pad studio balance sheets. But as it grew, stars emerged, like Sylvester Stallone or Charles Bronson, whose pics — hits or flops — seemed to magically double their U.S. grosses when sent abroad.

More recently, Leonardo DiCaprio has emerged as one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors overseas. “Titanic,” grossed $601 million in the U.S. and $1.2 billion in foreign box office; “The Beach” took in an unimpressive $39 million domestic and then $104 million foreign.

The prevailing opinion is that the best predictor of a DVD title’s success is its box office tally. 2003’s DVD bestsellers were “Finding Nemo,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” — a list that looks awfully similar to the top U.S. box office one.

But after box office, the next best predictor is genre. Kidpics do extremely well. A new edition of “The Lion King” sold $136 million worth of DVDs. “The Santa Clause 2” sold $84 million.

After that come the genres that are most likely to appeal to young men: gross-out comedies, horror pics and action films. “XXX” sold $97 million last year. “Jackass the Movie” did $64 million in DVD.