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The Beauty of the Direct-to-Video Movie

Is the stigma against the medium beginning to wear off?
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Straight-to-video legend Jean-Claude Van Damme. (Photo: ikrichter/Flickr)

Straight-to-video legend Jean-Claude Van Damme. (Photo: ikrichter/Flickr)

Beethoven's Treasure Tail came out on October 28, 2014. It stars Jonathan Silverman as Eddie Thornton, Kristy Swanson as Anne Parker, Bretton Manley as Sam Parker, and, presumably, a St. Bernard as Beethoven the Dog. Despite my frequent presence in movie theaters–there is no point to being a freelance writer if you can't go see a movie in the middle of the afternoon at least once or twice a month–I have never heard of this film. Neither has anyone else I asked. This is an admittedly small sample size, and 32-year-old Brooklynites are certainly not the target audience for this flick, but there's a good reason why no one has heard about this Beethoven movie: It went direct-to-video (DtV). In fact, Beethoven's Treasure Tail marks the sixth time since 2000 and the third since a franchise re-boot in 2008 that the dog has starred in a film not shown in theaters. These include Beethoven's 3rd (2000: "the dog is sent across the country in an RV to attend a family reunion"), Beethoven's 5th (2003: "Sara takes Beethoven to visit her crazy uncle"), and Beethoven's Big Break (2008: "A stray St. Bernard becomes a movie star"). This dog has been busy, even though you, and everyone you know, might not know it. In fact, the dog (or more likely, dogs) is not even close to the biggest star who frequently appears in DtV films. Action heroes Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme have made very good second careers without ever having to show up on the big screen. DtV action movies are everywhere. At the A.V. Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote them a love letter:

At their core, action movies are about bodies—bulging veins, swelling muscles, chests and foreheads drenched with sweat—and what those bodies are capable of. When there’s a sense of unity between what the body is doing and what the camera is doing, the result can be sublime. A body framed a certain way becomes figurative art and takes on a meaning that goes beyond the context of narrative or character. Space becomes sculptural, and movement becomes musical. That’s the essence of what made action movies a vital, exciting genre to begin with. Hollywood seems to have lost that sensibility, but in the direct-to-video world, it remains as striking as ever.

Vishnevetsky cites Isaac Florentine, who got his start as a stuntman in and a director of the Power Rangers, as one of the best directors in the DtV market. And you don't have to look very hard for lists full of greatfilms you must watch like 2009's Blood and Bone, featuring why-isn't-he-a-superstar Michael Jai White, and last year's Enemies Closer, in which Van Damme reunites with Timecop and Sudden Death director Peter Hyams. Any action movie fan would enjoy these flicks, especially with the large, high-def televisions that continue to invade our living rooms. For as long as there have been home video players, there have been DtV movies. Disney made a mint with films like the Aladdin sequel, The Return of Jafar, and low-budget thrillers have done well, too. Writing on Quora, producer Ken Miyamoto explains what makes a straight-to-video film successful:

  • A name star (Most of whom still pull in international audiences, like those mentioned above and many more). Often actors that used to be big box office draws domestically in the U.S. but aren't anymore. Thus they are affordable.
  • A high concept. And keep in mind, Van Damme as a demon hunter (I have no clue if this is for real, but I'd watch it) is a high concept for audiences. So we're not talking about originality. We're talking about concepts matched with casting that'll get people to rent or buy.
  • A small budget. They make these films for a few million, sometimes upwards of $15 million at the most. And they make their money back and turn a profit. And often they are pre-sold in foreign territories, hence stars that still have international appeal can sell the movie well overseas.
  • A cool poster or case cover art. Sometimes that's all it takes and often, if you pay attention, you'll see that such DVD/Blu-ray case art harkens back to the stars' golden years when they were big names domestically

In 2014, movies are divided into three categories: blockbusters, Oscar bait, and everything else. Given the ever-growing expense of marketing a theatrical release—frequently as much as the production cost itself—and the fewer and fewer slots available in theaters, we'll likely see the DtV market continue to grow. Video stores might be gone, but streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, which pay for movies, combined with rentals through cable providers or Amazon and iTunes will provide a revenue stream. Foreign sales of DVDs—Van Damme is huge abroad and the next action star might be as well—also figure into the equation. Directors are frustrated with the studio system and wary of budgets, restrictions, and the general difficulty of realizing their vision. As the stigma of making DtV films slowly wears off, it's going to be a place where moviemakers turn. Beethoven and Van Damme are going to have company.