Best Buy: Direct-to-Video Mecca?

At one point in our many long discussions about the strategic focus of The Parallax Review, Matt and I decided to target films that “fell through the cracks” with renewed vigor, adding several columns that specifically targeted the direct-to-video (DTV) market. The first, and probably the most satisfying (for me, at least), we called “Bargain Bin.” We both noticed, when scouring release dates for upcoming DVDs to discuss on the podcast, that a handful of DVDs would come out each month featuring major, recognizable stars in movies nobody had ever heard of.

Until that time, I’d always assumed DTV fare consisted largely of niche projects — I knew genre films (specifically low-budget horror and sci-fi) had been big in the DTV market for years, and more recently, unnecessary sequels had begun to flood the marketplace. This all made some sense to me — distro houses like Anchor Bay and (shudder) The Asylum use their limited promotional budgets for targeted ads at places like Fangoria or Syfy’s website and, over time, develop a reputation as a place for hardcore genre fans to find something a little more interesting (if not always better) than the latest Platinum Dunes release. Sequels are in the same boat but rely even less on targeted promotion — anyone searching for WarGames will undoubtedly find WarGames: The Dead Code. Plus, there’s “brand recognition.”

Yet, I found myself mystified by the spate of DTV releases that boasted major stars but lacked a definable niche. Some may argue the power of a big star alone, but if you enter Justin Timberlake, Kevin Spacey, or Morgan Freeman into Amazon, you’ll have to scroll through a number of pages before you stumble across Edison Force, despite it technically being Timberlake’s first leading role. How do people find these movies? Why would they buy them if they did? I watched plenty of these movies for The Parallax Review, and they ranged from entertaining in spite of themselves (the aforementioned Edison Force) to gut-wrenchingly compelling (Triage) to flat-out brilliant (The Winning Season). I don’t want to put words into Matt’s mouth, but I think the quality of most of our Bargain Bin picks took both of us by surprise — sure, we each reviewed a couple of shitty ones, but more often, we found some really good movies deserving of theatrical release. That’s in stark contrast to our picks for Sequelitis and DVD Insanity, which were terrible more often than not. (Even the most positive Sequelitis review, Single White Female 2: The Psycho, is more charmingly inept than it is actually good.)

Nevertheless, if these movies are good more often than not, and deserving of theatrical release, the question remains: why slough them off to DVD purgatory, where there’s an exceptionally low probability of anyone discovering them if they aren’t looking for them? The question has a two-part answer, and I always had some awareness of the first part: movie distribution is expensive. Film prints alone cost several thousand dollars. Theatres won’t lease prints if they don’t think anyone will bother seeing the movie. Ignoring the cost to lease a print, an empty theatre cuts into their overhead. And the cost of a print doesn’t factor in the cost to promote the film — a necessity to get asses in seats — or the cost a distributor pays the film’s production company for the right to distribute it, which is essentially a speculative bid that they hope will be profitable. If it’s not, the distributor is left holding the bag.

So, for instance, my beloved The Winning Season might seem like a no-brainer — a sports comedy (mainstream!) featuring acclaimed Sam Rockwell and rising stars Emma Watson, Rooney Mara, and Emily Rios — except for the part where, in the midst of being hilarious, it’s secretly a soul-crushing examination of an alcoholic loser trying to figure out how to relate to women in order to repair his relationship with his daughter. That sort of pathos shouldn’t be a tough sell, but it is. James C. Strouse doesn’t have the cachet of an Alexander Payne, and The Winning Season is too mainstream to bring in pretentious hipsters like me, but it’s too dark for the masses. (This is according to braindead marketing executives who don’t have the balls or the creativity to sell a good movie.)

It’s common knowledge that pressing several hundred DVDs costs significantly less to produce than a single print of a feature film; with the huge markup, a distributor can end up in the black much more quickly by eschewing a theatrical release altogether, whether or not snooty critics like myself believe it deserves one. Which brings me to part two of the answer, which seeks to answer the following Zen riddle: “If a film gets released on DVD and nobody knows about it, can the distributor break even?”

In the olden days (a decade ago), when video stores were still viable, distributors would dump movies like this as part of a package with more high-profile movies. A combination of factors — the stores earning more than enough on the more popular films to take the hit of stocking a movie nobody’s heard of, and the fact that the box art prominently displays stars you’ve heard of to encourage you to roll the dice on something nobody’s heard of — led to profitability, however minor. But how does a distributor accomplish that same feat when (a) the number of DTV star vehicles seems to have increased instead of decreased and (b) in the age of Netflix and Amazon, how the fuck does anyone find whim-based rentals/purchases?

I discovered the answer. See, I live in the age of Netflix and Amazon. I haven’t purchased a DVD from a store since college, when I used to compulsively buy sale items at Borders on breaks between classes (I think there’s a direct correlation between my college graduation and Borders’ financial collapse). It’s been strictly online purchases, focused like a laser beam — movies I’ve seen that I deem worthy of ownership. Even worse than that, I’m both a compulsive movie buyer and a cheapskate, so I’ll obsessively focus on individual movies for several weeks until I can get them for a few bucks apiece (Amazon’s recent “Fulfilled by Amazon” deal for sellers has been a boon to me — I can buy seven or eight really great movies for $25, with free shipping). I have no time to look for something like Grilled..

But Father’s Day crept up on me, and not only did I forget to get a gift for dear ol’ Dad — I had no clue what to get him. I feel it’s not in anyone’s best interest to encourage his compulsions by buying him something baseball-related, so I figured I’d just go down to Best Buy and browse DVDs until I found a decent, cheap movie he liked. To my surprise, Best Buy’s DVD shelves were stocked with a number of titles I recognized — not because anyone’s seen them, but because I reviewed them for The Parallax Review. Sandwiched between real movies, but displayed prominently enough to confuse people into thinking they’re worthy of attention, movies like Edison Force, 30 Days of Night: Dark Days, Leaves of Grass, and WarGames: The Dead Code glutted the shelves. But why?!

The plot thickened today. The water main on the street where I work broke, which means they shut the water off, which means I had to head over to a nearby Barnes & Noble to take a shit. And that, of course, means I had to pretend to browse for a little while so it didn’t look like I just came in to use their facilities. (I’m under the delusion anyone pays enough attention to me to notice such things.) To my surprise and confusion, Barnes & Noble now has a DVD section. I can’t tell you the last time I went into a Barnes & Noble, but I can tell you that they did not have any DVDs when I did. So I started casually browsing this new, restroom-adjacent section, and what did I see? More terrible DTV movies alongside movies you’ve heard of.

It appears they’re going for the same, whim-based demographic. Shoppers less savvy than yours truly (they exist, I hope) might see 30 Days of Night: Dark Days, think, “Gee, the first one was pretty okay — I’m sure that chick nobody liked on Lost will be just as good as that chick nobody liked on Alias,” and plunk down twenty misguided dollars. Worse than that, they’ll probably think something like, “Wowee! I didn’t know they made a sequel!” There’s no way that can end well for society, but at least it will probably end well for the consumer, and the distro house.

Posted by D. B. Bates on June 20, 2011 4:01 PM