With home video now outpacing theaters in terms of revenues, non-theatrical product is an increasingly important part of the video mix. And direct-to-video titles are particularly strong contributors to the rental and sell-through markets.
Despite their abundance, however, DTV and other "B" titles are losing ground with some specialists at supermarket chains.
"Several years ago, DTV and other 'B' movies were a third of our inventory; now they're only about 10%," said Theresa Daniels, manager, McMaken Super Market's McVideo, Brookville, Ohio. "We don't make our money back on them."
"We just don't have a lot of DTV titles like we used to have," said Craig Hill, video specialist, Harps Food Stores, Springdale, Ark. "They're not going well, except for horror and sci-fi."
These experiences are far from universal, however.
"If a non-theatrical release has star power and good box art, and is promoted properly, it has a good chance of performing well at retail," said Bill Bryant, vice president of sales for the grocery and drug channel at Ingram Entertainment, La Vergne, Tenn.
The rental and sell-through DTV markets each specialize in different types of product.
For rental, DTV releases dominate the "B"-title segment, helping to maintain a steady supply of product throughout the year.
"This market needs to hold up in order to balance rental departments in terms of margins and selection," said Greg Rediske, president, Video Management Co., Tacoma, Wash., "especially for those customers who are avid viewers."
For sell-through, major DTV releases frequently turn up in the fourth quarter to cash in on lucrative holiday sales, but there are other opportunities.
General-audience product has "a great back-to-school window," said Suzanne White, vice president of marketing, family and children's, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, Culver City, Calif., noting "all the retail traffic in August with moms and kids in the stores."
And special-interest titles, such as sports, another major sell-through contributor, are even less holiday-dependent.
Promotional tools like star power and box art are more important for films without theatrical exposure, but their relative significance can shift according to genre.
"Action is hit-or-miss, depending on star power," said Jeff Fink, president, sales and marketing, Artisan Home Entertainment, Santa Monica, Calif. "Horror seems to do very well regardless of star power. In that genre, packaging means more. You really need something that jumps off the shelf and captures the consumer's attention."
Artisan is promoting the star power in "Cash Crop," coming in June. This marijuana-themed thriller features "Dawson's Creek" star James Van Der Beek, whom Artisan calls "one of today's most popular young actors."
"There are rental audiences who just want action movies or thrillers, and as long as the title has great box art and a star, they'll go for it," said Martin Blythe, vice president of publicity, Paramount Home Entertainment, Hollywood, Calif. "The numbers aren't huge, but they're consistent."
Paramount's DTV "Kill Shot," a thriller available at retail this week, features stars Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards prominently on its cover.
"Name recognition is a mandate with all acquisitions for us," said Scott Hayman, spokesman for Lions Gate Home Entertainment, Toronto. "If it's not heavy on special effects like 'Blood Surf' [an upcoming release from Trimark featuring man-eating sharks and a giant crocodile], it's of paramount importance to have a recognizable star."
Trimark Home Video, like Avalanche and Studio, its sister labels at Lions Gate, is growing more aggressive in this regard.
Trimark's romantic comedy "Skipped Parts," coming in June, stars Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Jason Leigh, while "Attraction," a thriller also coming in June, features Samantha Mathis and Gretchen Mol. And "When the Sky Falls," a drama coming in July, stars Joan Allen and Patrick Bergin.
While films like these may be made well enough to play theatrically, many of them don't.
"Sometimes bad movies get released theatrically and great movies get released as video premieres -- that's just how it happens," said Hayman.
In view of this, theatrical exposure may have become less important for "B" movies.
Ingram subsidiary Monarch Home Video, for instance, has found a niche with PG-rated DTV comedies such as its well-received "Brainiacs.com" and the upcoming "Lloyd."
"It really depends on the box-office amount achieved," said Bryant. "A $5 million or greater box-office release seems to be the dollar amount that initiates public recognition and retailer copy depth."
"Does that impress anybody?" asked Rediske about theatrical releases. "I don't think it ever did, if they played [the film] twice in Dubuque."
"There's no stigma anymore; a lot of people are embracing video premieres," said Hayman.
Though DTV product may be getting some respect, it still faces competition from major titles.
"It continues to be difficult to find the dollars for [DTV and other "B" product] with the program situations," said Rediske.
"Aggressive studio programs on 'A' titles tend to consume a majority of the budget for many retailers," said Bryant. "However, there is still room -- and a need -- to stock a good variety of releases."
The sell-through market, in contrast, is oriented more toward franchises, with some studios working on DTV sequels and others developing new franchise characters to augment maturing ones.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Burbank, Calif., for instance, is reportedly preparing sequels to "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Jungle Book," "Mulan," "101 Dalmatians" (The Animated Sequel) and "Tarzan."
Some specialists are less than thrilled about DTV sequels, however.
"They don't put as much money into making them, and it shows," said Daniels of McMaken.
Universal Studios Home Video, Universal City, Calif., is active in DTV as well. This holiday season it will release "The Land Before Time: The Big Freeze" on VHS and DVD.
Also coming for the fourth quarter are "Beethoven's 4th" and "Balto II: Wolf Quest," a sequel to the animated film.
Artisan's main DTV releases are late in the year as well, capped by the feature film debut of a familiar figure for the company's Family Home Entertainment division.
"We'll have 'Barbie in The Nutcracker,' released in the third quarter with an aggressive promotional campaign on behalf of both Mattel and Artisan," said Artisan's Fink.
Lyrick Studios, Allen, Texas, will be releasing volumes of both "Kipper" and "Angelina Ballerina," which is positioned for girls aged 3 to 5.
Paramount, meanwhile, has set an Aug. 7 date for Maurice Sendak's "The Little Bear Movie," that character's first animated DTV feature. In June the studio will launch on video two new Nickelodeon franchises, "Little Bill" and "Dora the Explorer."
Paramount's strategy is to "bring out the tapes a month or two before TV airing so they qualify as direct-to-video," said Blythe.
The studio will also enter the sports arena with an NCAA tape under a deal with CBS.
Other sports product is coming from USA Home Entertainment, New York, including Stanley Cup and NBA Championship releases. First up, though, is "NBA Ultimate Player" on May 22, featuring the league's greatest stars.