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From Mediasharx.com

Direct-To-DVD Series Impossible ? (whedon mention)

By Scott Nance

Tuesday 11 May 2004, by Webmaster

Okay, this is where I feel like I should muster my best Anthony Stewart Head voice and intone, “Previously, in Emotional Resonance and Rocket Launchers ...” before my recap of what brings us here to this column.

But since I suck at British accents, I’ll spare you, gentle readers. Instead, I’ll merely remind you that in my last column, I had made the audacious proposal that, in the face of what is seeming to be the unending cancellation of all of our favorite shows, we try something else.

The “we” here is all of us who care about good scifi TV: fans and producers alike. The “something else” is a new distribution model that bypasses the broadcast and cable executives who clearly so value scifi so little in favor of selling new series to directly to fans on DVD, a medium which has been much friendlier to us fans in recent years.

In pitching my foolhardy scheme, I decided a little reality-check was in order. So I contacted Gord Lacey, who runs tvshowsondvd.com, figuring he could provide an expert opinion.

Well, he did, and I’m grateful, even though he told me my scheme was, well, foolhardy, and there’s no way it could possibly work.

But I’m nothing if not persistent, and figure there has to be a way to make it work. After all, back in the early and mid 1990s, business on the Internet also seemed like a half-cocked idea, too, and lots of people came up with good reasons why it would never work.

And, they were right: selling stuff online never would have worked, either, if people still wanted to do things the old way. But it took some enterprising folks a decade ago to come up with new ways of doing things. They had to come up with new business models, which at first were flaky-sometimes bizarre-but today are a given. (Do you still remember how weird it was the first time you typed your credit card number into a website?

Likewise, if we look at direct-to-DVD scifi series in the context of current business models, then Lacey is absolutely, 100 percent correct. Just as Amazon.com and AOL needed its innovators to solve the problems that stood in the way of turning the Internet into a massive new distribution channel, we need the Jeff Bezoses and Steve Cases of the entertainment world to think in innovative ways to make this crazy idea work.

Like I said last time, I could find no fault with Gord Lacey’s analysis of the challenges a direct-to-DVD scifi series would have to face so as to become reality and grow to be a success.

The way I look at Lacey’s breakdown of the problem, these new entertainment pioneers will have to overcome two main obstacles: budget and audience. Let’s take each in turn.

In truth, Lacey didn’t actually say a direct-to-DVD series was impossible, since he noted 24 creator Joel Surnow has already talked about a direct-to-DVD spin-off of his own show using different characters and different actors.

Lacey thought Surnow’s idea would be more viable than a scifi series because it would be less expensive to produce than a genre show. Lacey buys into the conventional wisdom that scifi series are always more costly because of costumes, special effects, and the like.

But a number of good and great scifi series have, in fact, thrived with very little spent on special effects. DOCTOR WHO is a great example of a show that succeeded for decades with a budget that looked like the producers spent, like, six bucks per episode on effects. (Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not that much of one.)

Also, it’s little-known-but-true that when he sat down to create the original STAR TREK in the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry created the transporter just as gimmick to get his characters to and from the action on the planet because landing a shuttlecraft each week would have busted his budget. Nearly 40 years later, very few people would say that little budget-saving device hurt the stories Roddenberry set out to tell.

Indeed, sumptuous effects and costumes have too often distracted writers and producers. Limiting their availability to just what’s absolutely necessary has the effect of concentrating a writer’s mind to focus on telling a good story and not relying on the effects to dazzle the viewers.

With an ability to use a computer to generate a few well-done effects crucial to tell his or her story, a good producer should be able to develop a reasonable, though not-necessarily-blockbuster, scifi series on DVD.

That leaves the question of how this unknown series would attract an audience willing to shell out $50 or $60 for a DVD set without any visibility over cable or broadcast.

To be sure, it would need some alternative marketing.

First of all, fans would be more likely to give an unknown series a look if it came from a respected, name producer. Joss Whedon, for instance, is such a celebrity producer. Not only are there fans of his shows like BUFFY, ANGEL, and FIREFLY; he has fans of his own - people who eagerly seek out whatever project Whedon’s associated with because they appreciate his unique storytelling ability.

(And, after getting burned on, first FIREFLY and now ANGEL, I’d say Whedon’s probably in a better frame-of-mind than most to say, “To hell with the executives,” and give this crazy direct-to-DVD thing a try.)

In any event, scifi is a fairly tight knit fandom, which makes marketing a little easier. Here are some suggestions: Screen the series pilot endlessly at conventions, make clips available online, and—remembering how America Online attracted an audience of some 32 million users—carpet bomb book and video stores with sample discs containing the pilot and some bonus material. If the series were truly good, all it would take would be a few steps like these before the best advertising would kick in: word of mouth.

Don’t underestimate that there is an audience for scifi series out there. After seeing all the great series that have fallen under the cancellation axe the last couple of seasons, that audience would be hungry for a good series. And this audience has proven, over and over again, that they are willing to buy DVD sets of good series.

All it would take to make a direct-to-DVD scifi series a reality is, yes, some money-nothing in Hollywood is free-and a lot of imagination. Is anyone up to the challenge?

6 Forum messages

  • Its great to find someone making an effort to overcome the rampant incompetence afoot in the entertainment world. I agree whole heartedly with the premise and am sure that the hundreds of families out there who feel as mine does would put their money down! Thanks Scott
  • > Direct-To-DVD Series Impossible ? (whedon mention)

    11 May 2004 22:34, by Anonymous
    I like your idea. They could promote online and distribute trailers of the shows over the internet. You know we’d all see them and pass on the links. I know I’d buy a series on DVD, especially if it was from Whedon. Lesser known producers may face stronger challenges. The audience would definitely need some known attraction to shell out the dough that first time.
  • This could work(but it won’t happen) Say a DVD is put out everyweek or so at $9.99 sale price,wholesale would be about $5.00 Angel season sets sell about 400,000 but it is still on TV with about 3.5 million weekly so say about 1.5 million buy this weekly thats $7,500,000 wholesale take away budget,marketing,price of making each DVD,package so say half which is $3,750,000 profit maybe plus sale overseas like to Sky one network,AU, etc.I wonder why no one has thought of this.
  • Hell I’m up for it. Damn — I would love Angel to come back...any shape or form.

    See online : Direct to DVD

  • > Direct-To-DVD Series Impossible ? (whedon mention)

    13 May 2004 15:03, by Paul Tuck
    I like this idea since I’m a UK SciFi fan without Sky and have to rely on Terristal TV to see Sci-Fi which is infrequent and either on at later hours (Babylon 5 at midnight Sunday anyone?) or put in an unsuitable timeslot and then edited to buggery (Babylon5 at 10:30 in the morning or Buffy Season 6 at 6:45pm) I’m now turning to DVD sets more and more. I think SciFi fans would pay for a DVD set if the pilot got their interest and even more so if it came from someone well respected in the SciFi community Joss Whedon is the obvious one that comes to mind.
  • > Direct-To-DVD Series Impossible ? (whedon mention)

    1 June 2004 21:31, by Anonymous
    You are absolutely correct in thinking that a direct to DVD series might work. I have been trying to do this several times. I ran the company that produced all the Police Chases shows and we looked at marketing new shows that way (legal problems prevented this). You need to look at it like a 3-legged stool. One leg is budget, one is consumer cost (subscription) and one is advertising. One all three legs are balanced, you have a viable show. However, getting the three to balance is the trick. I know we can control budget. How mush would you be willing to pay for a weekly show directly sent to you? $10, $20, $5? Then the balance needs to be made up by advertising. That is the hardest part is you do not know how many viewers you will have and how much advertisers are willing to pay for this niche market. You may have to find an angel (no pun) to cover the losses until you can prove your sales and demographics, but I think it is doable.