Direct to video films became synonymous with cheap, low quality films. In the world today, content designed to be available on-demand over streaming services is replacing films going through the traditional movie theater. Consumers are choosing subscription streaming services over cable subscriptions and 82% of internet traffic relates to video now. What a mixed-up world we live in. For this blog, I am using direct to video to describe content created inexpensively to search out audiences anywhere in the world instead of using the traditional film distribution pipeline. For this blog, direct to video will be similar to the production of B-films by studios.
Of the direct to video films I have seen over the many years, many are so bad that some of them are enjoyable. Except the Steven Seagal films. His current film output is light years away from Under Siege, or even Under Siege 2.
I used to hate low-budget films with cardboard characters that usually starred long-in-the-former former “stars” or actors you’ve never heard of.
I thought it was sad to see Charles Bronson doing his fourth Death Wish sequel and other flimsy cop or vigilante films. Buster Keaton had embarrassing roles in two beach films. Really though, it’s been common for once notable actors to appear in B-films, television, foreign films, even dinner theater. The reality is, to keep working, the career options change. There is nothing wrong with any of those options including dinner theater. I have had the pleasure to see many fine actors in quality productions with very appreciative audiences.
Before video tapes, DVDs, subscription cable and streaming – these low budget films were usually made by lesser profile companies and financed with a variety of money from foreign distributors, theater chains, profit participation, tax credits and other means. Low budget did not always imply low quality, although sometimes it did. Producers often targeted films to certain audiences based on age, region or other demographics. Genres like Westerns, war films, teenage surfers, organized crime, monsters, motorcycle gangs, martial arts, hot rods or soft-core sex were ripe for exploitation. The idea was to make them fast, cheaply and get them seen. In those days, filmmakers did not think in terms of shelf-life or ancillary markets.
The production of lower budget films has also been around since the beginning, smaller film studios were on poverty row in Hollywood. Even the big studios produced B-films and serials to feed the theaters, fill the second bill, and later drive-in theaters. Later on, television became a secondary market for these films. Even though the studios fought the influence of television, they would gladly use the medium to recycle old films from the vault.
Sometimes these were “art” films or documentaries, not exploitation films. The Mayles Brothers, David L. Wolper or others marketed their films to arthouses, television or colleges.
So, who made these films? Outside of the majors, independent film companies like Allied Artists, American International, Embassy Pictures (Joseph E. Levine), Associated Artists Productions, New Line Cinema, New World Pictures, Crown International Pictures and others filled the gap for audiences. Foreign films might be made elsewhere and the U.S. distribution rights bought by one of these companies who paid for prints and advertising.
Then came Cannon Films, Weintraub Entertainment, Largo (Larry Gordon) Entertainment, Castlerock Entertainment, The Ladd Company, Carolco, Cinergi Pictures, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, Village Roadshow Pictures and other deep-pocketed independent (but largely bankrolled by studios, investment companies and conglomerates) as alternatives to the Hollywood majors.
The rise of the direct-to-video business is like betting on horse racing. The graveyard of production and distribution companies is vast. Boom or bust, there are lots of players. Most independents have gone out of business or been absorbed by bigger fish, usually only wanting the film library. Even a company like American International Pictures, with many hits and a big film library, ran into trouble as they tried bigger budget films, and failed. Later, Cannon, a very successful company with Bronson, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris and others, tried to expand too fast (gained too much debt) and had numerous big budget failures, and was gobbled up by Pathe Communications.
Many actors, writers, directors and other talent got their start on low budget or direct to video films. Jack Nicholson may be the most famous. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme all gained experience working on low budget films.
Charles Bronson may be the best known actor to move to B-list, although Joan Crawford, Ray Milland and Glenn Ford did so late in their careers. Bruce Willis and Nicholas Gage, Wesley Snipes, Eric Roberts, Cuba Gooding, Jr., are a few more recent additions, joining B-list actors like Michael Madsen, Gary Busey and Lance Henriksen. Prior those actors, Fred Williamson, Robert Ginty, William Smith, Leon Issac Kennedy and Wings Hauser were among the direct to video stars.
The appetite for low budget films has only changed slightly, action films, cop stories, vigilante and horror films are popular subject matter for the direct to video market. Producers found that it was expensive to market their low budget films to the traditional theater distribution system, given the cost for prints, advertising and splitting the gross with the theaters. The direct to video market was born. The business model changed – get the product into the video rental stores and on cable television. Now, films did actually have a shelf life and could be recycled over and over again.
In the 2000s, the business market changed again. Cable television and the internet made it possible to rent films even easier, without a physical product. Video on Demand (VOD) or Direct to Consumer are the new catch phrases.
Production houses are now willing to put more money into films because of streaming and a world market. Making back your money and a long-term income stream changes the nature of the business.
So, the point of this blog was to discuss recently mining Amazon Prime and other sources for some action films. Dolph Lundgren, Steve Austin, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lou Ferrigno, John Cena and of course Steven Seagal are the big stars of this market, whatever you call it.
I have written about Van Damme, who had a very successful film career before some bad choices and younger actors arrived. Of all of these direct to video actors, I enjoy Van Damme’s “studio films” the most, like Time Cop, Lionheart and Double Impact.
Scott Adkins is an English actor, gymnast and martial arts expert who has established himself as a major direct to video star. I stumbled across Adkins while surfing through film titles that Prime was assured I would like.
Above are some of Seagal’s recent direct to video masterpieces. From the posters, these films look interchangeable. They are successful enough to keep the pipeline flowing with feature after feature. Seagal plays the same character over and over. Fake, dyed black hair, carefully staged camera work, clever editing and speeded up film – all to make a 69 year old guy can pass for 25 years younger. Well, not really.
As long as there is an appetite for the direct to video genres, there will be product. I bet they said this back in the 1920s when Westerns were being cranked out, or the 1930s when gangster films were popular.
I am not a wrestling fan, but Steve Austin is in my opinion the best wrestler to make the transition to film. He does not seem to promise anything more than he delivers. He has that cool, steely facial expression (shared by other action stars).
The fact that I watched a few Dolph Lundgren and Steve Austin films on Prime recently, no doubt moves some tumblers somewhere in the universe to greenlight their next films. Of the current direct to video stars, I find them engaging, in rather simple storylines. Honestly, it is not originality or dramatic depth that attracts anyone to these films. You like what the hero brings to the show.
Another huge genre of the direct to video market is horror. Chills and blood. I’m not a fan, so I cannot tell you the big players. What this genre shares with the action films is are how they easily can be shown to different countries around the world. The stories, via action and character reactions, hardly need subtitles. The graphic nature of the onscreen action is the drawing card. Whether it is cowboys, gangsters, drug dealers, vigilantes, aliens or zombies, you could turn down the sound and still follow the films.