Direct to Blu-ray

Living as I do in a suburb of LA, it's hard to avoid movie news. The local rag, the Los Angeles Times, is awash in it. Its theater listings take up an entire section of the paper, which on Friday and Sunday can feature huge, double-page ads for major releases. So if a movie opens to big notices and reviews, good or bad, it's hard to avoid hearing about it around here.

Which is why I wonder how I missed the releases of sure-fire hits such as Starship Troupers 3: Marauder, Doomsday, Step Up 2: The Streets, CJ7 and Never Back Down. OK, to be fair, I did see trailers on television for Doomsday, and Never Back Down was reviewed on, Ebert and What's His Name At the Movies? (soon to be At the Movies With What's His Name and Who's That?).

Some of these titles may have seen very limited release, with no publicity, but others might belong to a new class of video release: Direct-to-Blu-ray.

I love Blu-ray, so it's hard to argue even with BD releases that were well-publicized theatrical duds, like 10,000 BC or Jumper. But the titles mentioned above weren't even on the radar.

There's no doubt that this same phenomenon exists on DVD. With thousands of DVD titles now available, the direct to video segment is sizable. But there's plenty of DVD mastering capacity, so the release of Weekend at Bernie's XVIII, shot on a camcorder in the director's back yard, won't draw complaints (or dollars!) from me. But the current pressing capacity for BDs is still at the level that forces studios to choose between a great back-catalog title and a new movie like The Ruins.

| Why isn't this choice a no-brainer? Who wouldn't rather have Raiders of the Lost Ark on BD, for example? The explanation may well lie in advertising costs. The Ruins is a new title in a genre with a built-in fan base, many of whom are also Blu-ray enthusiasts. But it has no big stars with the requisite egos, and perhaps a financial cut of the home video revenues, so no special advertising campaign is needed. It won't be a big seller, but neither will it cost much to dump onto the market and generate a few extra bucks to make up for the theatrical losses (if there was a theatrical release at all). And genre fans will find it without the added promotion.

But release, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Titanic on Blu-ray and you'll have to make an, um, immense splash in print and on television. Sure, the word would get around pretty fast in the Internet era even without a marketing push, but do you think filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and Cameron are going to settle for a quiet little launch? They'll want searchlights and ticker-tape parades. Searchlights and parades cost big bucks. If there aren't yet enough BD players to generate sufficient sales to justify the costs, and you're in charge of a studio, you'll wait until there are. The only way around this is simultaneous release of a title on DVD and BD, so the BD promotion can piggyback on the DVD campaign. But for a catalog release to act as a piggyback vehicle would require a remastered or otherwise fancied-up DVD special edition to justify all the hoopla.

There may well be a recent movie gem or two in the vaults of major studios that never saw the inside of a theater. Or productions that were only released commercially overseas. The studio decided that no matter how much they pushed that particular title in its theatrical release, it was unlikely to make enough money to cover expenses.

If you're a big fan of a particular obscure film or direct-to-video production, of course, you'll see all this differently! As I write this I'm eagerly awaiting this week's release of Stargate SG-1: Continuum on Blu-ray. I've already seen the standard DVD version and it's a fine show for fans of the now-discontinued series, though non-fans unfamiliar with the story background may find it a bit confusing and, perhaps, even a little campy. So whether or not you consider a particular release to be a waste of perfectly good Blu-ray real estate will likely depend on Whose Ox is Being Gored. Hey, that sounds like a great title for a sure-fire horror franchise. We'll probably see on a direct-to-BD release just in time for Christmas.

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