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Is VOD the New ‘Direct to Video’ Label?

We know it’s an acronym for “video on demand.” The term presumably takes the place of one from a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away where people had to drive to brick and mortar buildings to rent a flick. That term was “straight to DVD” or DTV (direct to video).

That referred to the bottom of the barrel movies no studio wanted to take responsibility for, but they got made anyway (and were rented by film-watching scum like me). They starred actors looking for quick gigs like Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van-Damme. The word “original” wasn’t in their vocabulary, and only the rare DTV film would stick out.

It seems unfair to have VOD take the place of DTV in some movie watchers’ minds. Now, big stars and filmmakers make films that hit digital shelves while debuting in very few, if any, theaters.

We spoke to screenwriter Johnny Sullivan (“Recoil,” “Fear of the Dark”), a man familiar with both VOD and DTV releases, about what a VOD movie is and how the market is changing to accommodate for the new influx of digital content.

What is the market like today for VOD movies? Are there more, less? Has the digital platform opened up more space and opportunity for these films, or is the market over-saturated?

Johnny Sullivan: I don’t think anyone writes for VOD movies, I think that’s just where some of these films wind up. The market isn’t over-saturated … yet. It’s getting there. Studios always ‘kill the goose’. Day & date VOD releases cut down on box office, but that’s usually because the studio has no confidence in the film to perform in theaters. That’s the stigma. A limited theatrical release with a day & date VOD release is really the studio saying: “Look, we can afford to put this thing into a few theaters in LA and NY, but really – it’s a commercial for a VOD release. Because this movie is weird and/or troubled.”  VOD releases can be quality movies … but it really is the new DTV.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase ‘VOD movie’?

Johnny Sullivan: I used to manage a video store and VOD is the new direct-to-video. However: Many of these VOD films are quite good. Some are undiscovered gems. They’re not crap action or horror movies – like they were in the ’90s (some are). There’s real artistry involved. They’re just … not ready for prime time. A studio saves money on a theatrical P&A (prints and advertising) campaign and relies on movie blogs to drum up interest in a VOD purchase.

Do these types of films get the same attention a movie with say, more of a budget get? What is the difference between say, “Sniper: Legacy” which had a VOD release and a mid-level theatrical action movie like “November Man?”

Johnny Sullivan: “November Man” had Pierce Brosnan, who men and women both like from his James Bond days. “November Man” was an attempt to give Pierce a Liam Neeson moment. I think it did ok. Pierce is still a low-end A-list actor who appeals to an audience. That’s why it got a wide release. “Sniper: Legacy” has Tom Berenger and Someone Else, neither of which are box office draws. The studio was smart to send it to VOD. There’s a reason that there are four ‘Sniper’ movies: They rent. The first one (theatrical release) was barely a hit – but the movies clean up on the rental market. If I’m combing through my VOD guide and I see “Sniper: Legacy” … and it’s a Saturday night. And I’m bored. And it’s 3.99. Yeah, I’m renting it.

The Prince Official Trailer (2014) - Bruce Willis Action Movie HD

More big actors are moving towards these small-budgeted genre titles that debut mostly or entirely on demand. There’s Bruce Willis with “The Prince” and “Vice,” and there’s Jason Statham with “Wild Card.” Why do you think that is? What is the appeal for these artists?

Johnny Sullivan: They shoot fast, and they pay. Bruce and Statham can bank millions of dollars for (maybe) a few weeks of work … I was told once that Statham’s questions for signing onto a film are: “Who do I fight? Who do I kiss? How much?” Both Bruce and Statham maintain good theatrical careers … the VOD stuff is found money, and sometimes paid vacations. Those guys mean A LOT internationally. Their names on a poster pre-sell a movie. A Bruce Willis or Jason Statham or Gerard Butler movie can be in profit before an inch of film is even shot. So – they earn the cash grab.

Is there a difference in writing a film that’s a VOD title or do you really never know the intended platform a movie will be released on when conceiving and writing it?

Johnny Sullivan: I’ve never written deliberately for VOD. “Recoil” was originally supposed to be a theatrical film with Sylvester Stallone. It just happened that it became a DTV movie with Steve Austin. If you write a $100 million, high-concept adventure flick … yeah, you intend it to be theatrical. If you write a $5-10 million dollar violent action movie: You have to understand it will most likely be VOD. Every writer, every filmmaker wants their movie to be theatrical. You get to see your movie on the big screen! But … that corridor is getting narrower.

Recoil - Official Trailer

The market has changed. Does the phrase ‘direct to DVD’ mean anything anymore? Is there a difference between when a movie like “The Boondock Saints” was released direct to DVD and now when a movie like “The Man with the Iron Fists 2″ can be released on DVD and digital platforms simultaneously?

Johnny Sullivan: “The Boondock Saints” was intended to be a theatrical film (and it did get a limited release) but behind-the-scenes stuff killed it, and it went DTV. And it did quite well. I don’t know who the audience is for “The Man with The Iron Fists 2.” I didn’t even think that the first one was popular. Was it? It must have done well on DVD and VOD. I haven’t seen it. But I guess that’s the positive thing about the surge of direct-to-consumer films … things get discovered. I don’t care how people see my movies … just see them … and pay for them.

What are you working on now that people can look forward to?

Johnny Sullivan: I have an action film titled “Security” shooting in June from Millennium Films and a project with Nickelodeon called “Boogeyman” shooting in the spring (directed by Howard Deutch). I’m working on an action project now with some independent producers, titled “Response Time.” I’m directing my first feature titled “Away in May” in September, also with independent financiers.

Follow Johnny Sullivan on Twitter @JohhnyBlackout

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