The Real Home Box Office; or, The Rise of Direct-to-Video Cinema
“The spirit of the independent is playing a key role in the home video business.” – Variety (June 11, 1984)
“The whole thing was shot on video. I mean, it has the same quality as a soap opera or one of those rotten commercials, not a film” – Video Violence (1987)
For the next several minutes, let us be kind and rewind, to an earlier era, one in which videotapes were only a half-inch wide, but their impact was colossal. Audiences could finally control not only what they watched, but also when they watched it.
In December of 1982, Billboard described the potential dawning of a new age, not of Aquarius, but Beware-of-Us, the indie video companies:
“Promises also continue to proliferate of a video industry fueled by original programming — yet feature films are still where the action is. Prospects brighten, though, when one sees the activity Jane Fonda’s Workout and The Compleat [sic] Beatles are generating. Let’s hope this is one promise yet to be kept.”
Films of all types had been made for theatrical release or “made for television.” Now was the time for a third major market, one in which indies could reach audiences directly. Here indeed is the predecessor to modern streaming services.
Stuart Karl perceived the possibilities more clearly than anyone else. He founded the Karl Video Corporation in 1980, perhaps following from Kool and the Gang’s suggestion, “Sell-ebrate good times, come on!”
Actually, the real reason was that he had asked video stores what they carried other than movies and porn. “And they said, ‘nothing,’” he recalled.
Karl’s initial efforts to expand viewing habits included direct-to-video programs on cooking and first aid, but, as he later admitted, “no one bought them.”
The reason? “The consumer was [initially] so excited about big-name features and X-rated, about sitting at home like Howard Hughes watching movies, so his friends would say, ‘You’ve got films in your house?”
But in 1982, the tide turned, with Karl acting the role of Poseidon.
He had the idea of turning Jane Fonda’s exercise regimen into a video. She liked him, and soon the world loved both of them.
“The first month was real slow,” Karl later admitted. “I think we only sold 3,000 copies the first month. Then, we could sense the groundswell. The tape began to gain a very steady momentum.”
Momentum became momentous. Jane Fonda’s Workout spent much of 1982 in the number one position on Billboard’s sales chart.
As of September 1983, Karl had sold 200,000 units. And the Vidcom Awards at Cannes bestowed it with a “gold cassette award.” Poseidon had released the Kraken. Tidal waves were fast becoming a tsunami.
And so Karl pushed various follow-ups, including Everyday with Richard Simmons (1983). He also declared that the better comparison for home video was not the movie theater, but rather the bookstore. “I know we’re swimming upstream,” he explained, “but I’m convinced the bookstore of the future is on videotape.”
After all, by the summer of 1983, eighteen non-theatrical titles had appeared on Billboard’s Top 40 list of videocassette sales. What’s more, ten of them made the list in June of that year, comprising a “solid” market share of 25%.
Exercise tapes dominated back then, but other genres included music programs, stand-up comedy, and “kidvids.”
Media Home Entertainment, Vestron Video, CBS/Fox, Warner Home Video, Paramount Home Video, MCA Home Video, and MGM/UA Home Video followed Karl’s lead.
Bob Cook, VP for marketing and sales at Embassy Home Video, said in 1984 that his company was excited about “directed” programming. “We’ve been talking about that prospect for the last six years, but the market size is just coming to the point that it’s economically feasible. Now we can produce programs for those specialized interests.”
In September 1984, Screen International declared, “A VCR owner has the freedom to choose alternative programming; the recorder allows him to learn tennis, photography, cooking, plumbing, car repair, German, card games and just about any other sport or activity.”
And some of these projects were sold at new retailers, including Waldenbooks, just as Stuart Karl had predicted.
Karl Video became Karl-Lorimar, thanks to the latter acquiring the former, with Karl staying on as president. The company distributed Playboy videos, and produced “how-to” programs about everything from computer usage and casino gambling to quitting cigarettes.
One tape could inspire you to make babies, while another could teach your babies how to read.
These were all in addition more Fonda workouts: Workout Challenge (1983) and Pregnancy, Birth and Recovery Workout (1983). As the manager of one chain of video stores said in 1985, “Jane Fonda wrote the book on alternative video.”
And alternate alternatives continued to surface out of the special interest waters.
Consider Max Maven’s Mindgames, released by MCA in 1984. It went well beyond the Maven performing mind games. “In some of the experiments, the viewer will actually find himself being physically maneuvered by psychological means.” The video could read your mind, and your pocketbook.
But Vestron Video made the sweetest music with Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller (aka The Making of Thriller), released in late 1983. Here was a documentary about a music video about a song about zombies.
It quickly became one of the top selling videotapes of all time. Over 600,000 units moved that decade. (No mere mortal could ever resist the lure of the Thriller.)
The list of happy celebrities was growing. Folks like Fonda and Jackson made more money per unit by pairing with indie video labels than they ever would have with the majors. Big studios had been bypassed in a big way.
And of course the Thriller tape was followed by the likes of We Are the World — The Video Event (1985), released by RCA/Columbia Home Video. Its initial shipment was 200,000 units.
Nevertheless, by 1987, video companies realized that it was increasingly tough to push special interest programming. Yes, Jane Fonda’s Workout had probably sold a million copies domestically by that time, but most videos couldn’t muster a fraction of those sales.
How to Have a Moneymaking Garage Sale (1987), distributed by J2 Communications, starred Phyllis Diller. The back of the box promised, “There’s gold in the old… so turn your trash into cash!”
Have we forgotten that gem? How could we? We never even knew it existed.
As of 1989, Billboard was talking about the business getting even tougher and tougher. Here was not quite a “videobituary,” but an acknowledgment. Many tapes were sinking, not swimming.
Special interest was special, but not everyone was interested. VCR head cleaners were necessary because owners kept playing feature films over and over again, not instructional videos.
And so emerges another Titan in this history, Bill Blair, who owned the Tulsa-based company United Entertainment, Inc.
In 1985, even before Hollywood first used the term “direct-to-video” (which dates to circa 1987), Blair — who had been involved in film distribution since 1959 — announced plans to produce five horror movies with a combined budget of less than $1 million. And they would go straight to home video.
Thanks to Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1981), blood deluged film audiences in the eighties, and the video store became slasher central.
The added bonus of direct-to-video (DTV) gore was that a film didn’t have to be a film; that is to say, a “film” could be shot on video, rather than celluloid.
The first shot-on-video (SOV) horror feature was actually John Wintergate’s Boardinghouse (1982).
And the first SOV horror feature to receive home video distribution was probably David A. Prior’s Sledge Hammer (1983), which combined supernatural elements with a title-based weapon, the latter being not unlike The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Driller Killer (1979), as well as such future films as Saw (2004).
But it was Bill Blair who made the biggest splash by transforming the DTV horror film into a major business. That was in 1985. Just one year later, Variety rightly told readers that Blair had “pioneered” the field. He had parted the bloody red sea.
“Horror Made for the Home,” Billboard had announced in March 1985, referring to the first DTV flick that Blair distributed. Its title was Blood Cult. Christopher and Linda Lewis shot the movie on Sony Betacam in Tulsa in six days. The total budget was only $125,000.
Blair quickly reported sales of 25,000 units of Blood Cult at $59.95. That meant “heavy profit,” to the tune of $800,000 in revenue. Living on Tulsa Time was paying off.
Blair’s company “aggressively” moved onto other movies, including of course a sequel to Blood Cult. Titled Revenge (1985), it had double the budget of its predecessor, and costarred John Carradine and Patrick Wayne. (In other words, the Prince of Horror and the Son of the Duke.)
Despite their limited budgets, Blood Cult and Revenge featured some fine videography, editing, and music. That’s to say nothing of their enduring charm. Blair’s company name “United” was apt: Dreamscapes and nostalgia-scapes merge.
In between those two flicks, the Lewises created The Ripper (1986), the most famous of the Blair-United DTVs. In it, a film professor purchases an old ring and becomes possessed by Jack the Ripper.
The Ripper sold the best of the trio, which is regrettable, because it is by far the least of them. Recreations of 1888 London in 1985 Tulsa are terrible, not just because of the obvious visual gulf between the two, but also due to a dearth of believable British accents and an abundance of electric lights, one of which apparently belonged to an automobile.
Tom Savini — who wisely doesn’t even try a British accent — plays Jack the Ripper, but only for a few minutes at the film’s climax. The actor who plays him in other scenes is obviously someone else. Savini later begged forgiveness from horror buffs for appearing in this film-not-shot-on-film.
Nevertheless, Blair’s company and associates made history by popularizing SOV-DTV horror movies. Dozens of them from other companies flooded video stores, all aided by the undying popularity of the genre. Some were helmed by creative directors, others by “vidiots.”
As a video store manager in Video Violence (1987) explains, “All these people want are horror movies and slasher films and occasionally a Triple X-er from the back.” (Take a dip, or take a skinny dip?)
Video Violence was of course one of those films that followed Blair’s lead. And it was one of the best, its natural lighting and SOV origins accentuating its exploitation origins. Its budget was allegedly six bucks.
Whether or not a project was SOV, though, DTV became increasingly attractive to feature filmmakers and distributors. In November of 1987, Variety told readers:
“With a parade of pics logjammed at a busy theatrical release intersection, the home video industry is countering with its own exhibition vehicle — direct-to-video.
Direct-to-video is being heralded as a simple solution to the greater need for home video product than theatrical release is capable of providing. It is also being termed a safety net for filmmakers unable to secure a distribution pact.
Despite these two potential dividends, the rapidly emerging concept is the subject of hot debate in film and video circles.”
Some studio executives still believed DTV (or “D-T-V,” as it was sometimes rendered) meant that a film was “so bad it could never compete in a theatrical market.”
On the other hand — as Variety made clear — there was indeed a trend of “distribs” who were willing to “bypass theatrical release” in favor of DTV.
For example, at a conference in 1989, Dennis Donovan of Raedon Entertainment announced he had “just moved 6,000 units of Cole Justice [a “personal revenge story” made by a Tulsa-based filmmaker for $225,000] in just 10 days at $69.95 list.”
And the man himself, Bill Blair, told attendants that he had sold “12,000 pieces of a $300,000 production called Murder Rap at $79.95.”
Some of the panelists actually thanked the Hollywood blockbuster, because it meant that major studios were making fewer films, even while video stores — including the growing number of supermarkets renting tapes — needed more and more product.
That said, it took a little longer for other distributors to get their feet wet, to wade in, to not be scared of the open waters that Karl and Blair had long circumnavigated. In 1993, The Hollywood Reporter explained the slow evolution:
“Once considered the poor stepchild of the theatrical feature, the made-for-video feature has become a profitable business for those who know how to package the right elements.”
Those Who Knew included Barry Collier, chairperson for Prism Pictures, a division of Prism Entertainment. His erotic thriller Night Eyes Three (1993, aka Night Eyes 3) grossed $2.2 million out of 45,000 units. That was Collier’s 22nd direct-to-video project since 1990. The others included Night Eyes II (1991, aka Night Eyes 2), which grossed $2.1 million on 52,000 units. That led to Night Eyes Four (1996, aka Night Eyes 4), of course, as well as many others.
Barbara Javitz, President of Prism Entertainment, touted the fact that “all [of our films] are shot on 35mm” before being “video premiered.” Here was DTV, but not SOV. None of the budgets were more than $1.5 million.
Paramount Home Video also got behind the trend with its Full Moon Entertainment, which released direct-to-video horror movies, as well as its Moonbeam label, which distributed family-friendly content produced by Charles Band.
To capitalize on Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), Moonbeam hatched its own dinosaur egg, Prehysteria (1993). Paramount claimed that it quickly became one of the top-selling DTV titles of all time: 70,000 units, as opposed to the 30,000 units that most of their titles sold.
By that time, industry pros believed that “sales of anywhere from 25,000 to 35,000 units qualify a film as a made-for-video hit.”
And those numbers weren’t necessarily the ceiling. Leather Jackets (1991), produced by Epic Home Video and starring Bridget Fonda, grossed nearly $4 million after shipping 65,000 units.
“The market has increased to the point where it’s become very profitable to release movies direct to video,” Jeff Fink, VP for Sales and Marketing at Epic, told The Hollywood Reporter. As a result, Epic launched its “World Premiere Video” line of DTV films with budgets of between $5 to 8 million.
MCA jumped in with DTV sequels to theatrical releases like The Land Before Time (1988) and Darkman (1990). The company was particularly interested in pursuing action, science fiction, and martial arts properties.
In 1992, Disney experimented with DTV in the form of Tim Burton’s 28-minute short Frankenweenie. Billboard touted the film as never having been released theatrically. To enhance its “video exclusivity,” Disney didn’t release the film for cable, syndication, or any other type of television broadcast.
But the greatest landmark in this history was yet to come. Disney finally produced a DTV feature, Alan Zaslove and Tad Stones’ The Return of Jafar (1994). In May of 1994, the Hollywood Reporter:
“If the first two days of sales of Disney’s direct-to-video Aladdin sequel, The Return of Jafar, are any indication, the concept of creating product to premiere on home video will be quickly embraced by studios.
Disney reported Thursday that consumers purchased 1.5 million units of Jafar in the first 48 hours of its release on Tuesday. … Disney domestic home video president Ann Daly said she expects the title will become one of the best-selling videos of the year.”
Disney reportedly shipped 8 million units of Jafar within a few days of its video premiere. The House of Mouse was not divided. The DTV water was just fine. Come on in.
As of January 1995, the studio announced plans for another sequel to Aladdin, as well as one for The Lion King. Both were slated for direct-to-video release.
Sony also took the plunge, its Wonder division releasing such DTV films as Diane Eskenazi’s The Jungle King (1994).
“Direct-to-home-video is a wonderful category to establish in our marketplace,” Wendy Moss, Senior VP for Marketing at Sony Wonder, said. “By definition, its something that’s never been seen before, so that makes it very special.”
Sony’s particular movies hadn’t been seen before, but certainly DTV and SOV had been, time and again, thanks to the likes of our heroes, Stuart Karl and Bill Blair.
Alas, Stuart Karl didn’t live to see the The Return of Jafar and its kith and kin. He died of cancer in 1991. Only 38 years old, he was every bit as much of a maven as Max.
Bill Blair’s biography had a happier ending. He lived until 2006, having witnessed VHS transform into DVD. His son Bob currently runs the family company, known for many years now as VCI Entertainment.
When it came to DTV, both men practically walked on water. Aqua pura. Their workouts and gore changed the industry. Exercise and exorcise, one and all.
Now, when it comes to the entertainment biz, I certainly don’t control the horizontal or the vertical. This isn’t broadcast TV or a theatrical screening.
It’s home video. You have the choice. The “on demand” is your demand.
All I can do is sincerely recommend that you direct your POV to DTV, and never forget the Great “Made for Video” Flood of the eighties.