DVD's Scarlet Letter

July 18, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Direct-to-DVD. Those words are not so much a label as they are a Scarlet Letter. If the industry wants to move forward with its stated goal of expanding the video market, the negative connotations associated with this term have to be removed. As long as "Direct-to-DVD" is viewed as a perjorative, there's going to be a lack of enthusiam on the part of both consumers and distributors for a product that bypasses a theatrical release.

There's a reason why people are wary of Direct-to-DVD films. For the most part, they stink. They're often the dregs of the barrel - movies so bad their distributors don't want to spend money marketing them, so they get dumped onto DVD. Even some high-profile examples, like the recent Havoc and the current Edison Force, have received a less-than-enthusiastic critical response.

The stigma will remain in place until distributors begin releasing better quality movies directly onto DVD. They don't have to be high profile titles (in fact, they likely won't be), but they have to be the kind of thing that people will be interested in watching. Today, "good" movies with an intended primary DVD audience still receive a theatrical release to avoid the "direct-to-DVD" label. It's an advertising gimmick. There's no expectation that the films will make money during their limited theatrical runs, but the consequences of not giving them exposure in theaters can be unfortunate.

Bubble represented an interesting experiment - a movie that was released simultaneously in theaters, on DVD, and on pay TV. Mark Cuban footed the bill, and the results were intriguing. Bubble was widely viewed as a theatrical failure but a DVD success. (I haven't seen any figures concerning how well it did on TV.) If more films of that quality showed up directly on DVD, the Scarlet Letter might begin to fade. It's something that must happen eventually if Hollywood is going to take full advantage of the DVD market. Currently, home video brings in more revenue than theaters, so it no longer makes sense for DVD to exist as a secondary market for "used" products and a primary market for "defective" products. What kind of business model is that?

It appears that we are headed for a bifurcation of the movie system. Big-budget, blockbuster movies will receive their primary exposure in multiplexes. The first-weekend success rate of recent "event movies" has proven there's still a significant market out there for this sort of fare. But the lower budget, less ostentatious productions will begin to migrate toward home video as their primary venue. How quickly this happen will be in large part a reflection of how aggressively studios pursue elminating the stigma and marketing smaller releases on DVD. The theater-to-DVD window is already shrinking, not only for big movies (King Kong, for example, took only 3 1/2 months to go from multiplexes to DVD players) but for small ones as well. Clean is a good example. It opened in limited release only a month before showing up on DVD. Once unheard of, this is becoming commonplace.

There also needs to be a change in the mindset of directors. Many view it as "slumming" to make a movie that goes directly to DVD. Barbara Kopple, who directed Havoc was apprarently upset that her movie was never accorded a theatrical release. Susan Seildelman's new feature, Boynton Beach Club, struggled mightily to find a theatrical distributor (The Samuel Goldwyn Company eventually bought the distribution rights). Before Goldwyn came on board, Seildelman was faced with the possiblity of having to take the film directly to DVD, and the prospect horrified her. This was, in her words, a "real" movie, not something that was put together on a whim to make a few bucks. That's the perspective many established directors have of direct-to-DVD releases, and it's something that has to change.

So here we are, in an era when home video is bigger than it has ever been. Why, then, are its children still being regarded as second-class citizens? More importantly, why aren't the studios giving us a reason to change this view?