Direct-to-video or straight-to-video refers to the release of a film, TV series, short or special to the public immediately on home video formats rather than a theatrical release or television broadcast.
Because inferior sequels or prequels of larger-budget films may be released direct-to-video, review references to direct-to-video releases can be pejorative.
Direct-to-video release has also become profitable for independent filmmakers and smaller companies.
It is usual for a direct-to-video genre film (with a high-profile star) to generate well in excess of $50 million revenue worldwide.
What are the Reasons for Releasing Direct-to-Video?
A production studio may decide not to generally release a TV show or film for several possible reasons:
- A low budget;
- A lack of support from a TV network;
- Negative reviews;
- Its controversial nature;
- That it may appeal to a small niche market, or
- A simple lack of general public interest.
Studios, limited in the annual number of films to which they grant cinematic releases, may choose to pull the completed film from the theatres, or never exhibit it in theatres at all. Studios then generate revenue through video sales and rentals. Direct-to-video films are marketed mostly through colourful box covers, instead of advertising, and are not covered by publications like Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide.
Direct-to-video releases have historically carried a stigma of lower technical or artistic quality than theatrical releases. Some films released direct-to-video are films which have been completed but were never released in movie theatres. This delay often occurs when a studio:
- Doubts a film’s commercial prospects justify a full cinema release; or
- Because its release window has closed.
In film industry slang, such films are referred to as having been ‘vaulted’. Like B-movies shown in drive-in theatres in the mid-20th century, direct-to-video films employ both former stars and young actors who may become stars later.
Direct-to-video releases can be done for films which cannot be shown theatrically due to controversial content, or because the cost involved in a theatrical release is beyond the releasing company.
Animated sequels and feature-length episodes of animated series are also often released in this fashion.
In 1992, Warner Bros. Animation released Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation, a direct-to-video movie based on the animated television series Tiny Toon Adventures.
The Walt Disney Company started planning to make sequels to many of its animated films for video release beginning with The Return of Jafar (the sequel to Aladdin) in 1994 and Aladdin and the King of Thieves (the second sequel to Aladdin) in 1996.
Universal Studios also began their long line of The Land Before Time sequels that same year.
By 1994, an average of six new direct-to-video films appeared each week. Erotic thrillers and R-rated action films were the two most successful genres. Family films became more important than such genres later in the 1990’s, as retailers stocked more copies of blockbuster films instead of more titles. According to the Los Angeles Times:
Often, the downfall of live-action family films at the box office is their strength on video. Their appeal is to families with young children, who may go to only a couple of movies per year but who will watch many videos multiple times. The teens and young adults who drive blockbuster box office statistics stay away from family movies.
Some horror films that are unsuccessful in theatres, like Witchcraft, begin successful direct-to-video series. Studios may also release sequels or spin-offs to a successful live action film straight to DVD, due to a lack of budget in comparison to the original. An example is the Behind Enemy Lines series of films.
Physical Format Releases
Direct-to-Video Films Screened Theatrically
Occasionally, a studio that makes a movie that was prepared as a direct-to-video film will release it theatrically at the last minute due to the success of another film with a similar subject matter or an ultimate studio decision.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an example of this. However, despite the movie’s critically acclaimed success, its box-office performance was very poor, which has been attributed to its last minute decision to be released theatrically. The film had much better commercial success in its subsequent home video releases.
On other ocassions, a direct-to-video movie may get a limited theatrical screening in order to build excitement for the actual release of the video such as was done for 2010’s Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, and Planet Hulk, 2016’s Batman: The Killing Joke or 2013’s Sharknado.
Direct-to-Disc or DVD Premiere
As DVD’s gradually replaced VHS videocassettes, the term ‘direct-to-DVD’ replaced “direct-to-video” in some instances.
However, the word ‘video’ does not necessarily refer to videocassettes.
Many publications continue to use the term ‘direct-to-video’ for DVDs or Blu-rays. Both disc-based release types may also be referred to as ‘direct-to-disc’. A new term sometimes used is ‘DVD premiere’ (DVDP).
Such films can cost as little as $20 million, about a third of the average cost of a Hollywood release. According to Variety, American Pie: Band Camp sold a million copies in one week, despite retaining only two actors from the original trilogy.
Some direct-to-DVD releases recently have tended to feature actors who were formerly bankable stars. In 2005, salaries for some of these direct-to-DVD actors were in the multimillion-dollar range from $2 to $4 million (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and $4.5 to $10 million (Steven Seagal), in some cases exceeding the actors’ theatrical rates.
With the increasing prominence of digital distribution platforms in the 2000’s and 2010’s, direct-to-digital releases began to emerge alongside, or in lieu of home video.
In November 2007, Ed Burns’ Purple Violets became the first film to ‘premiere’ exclusively for sale on iTunes Store, being exclusive to the platform for a month. It had premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, where it was reviewed positively, but only received modest distribution offers. At the time, it was not very common for consumers to make digital movie purchases.
As part of a push by the service towards original content, the subscription video on demand service Netflix began to acquire feature films for distribution on its service in the 2010’s, including the 2013 documentary The Square, and its first feature film in 2015 – Beasts of No Nation. Netflix pursued a simultaneous release strategy for its films, partnering with a distributor for a limited theatrical release (in order to maintain eligibility for awards requiring theatrical release, such as the Academy Awards) simultaneous with their availability to subscribers. As this practice violates the traditional release windows mandated by the cinema industry, major chains have typically declined to screen the films. Since 2018, Netflix has partially backpedalled from this strategy, giving its films a one-month theatrical run before their premiere on the Netflix service.
Unique circumstances have also resulted in direct-to-digital releases, sometimes alongside a limited theatrical release; the 2014 film The Interview was released simultaneously on digital and at selected cinemas, after major chains dropped the film due to terrorist threats by a hacking group believed to have ties to North Korea (whose regime is satirised in the film). The group had also leaked confidential data from the internal servers of the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures.
The Effect of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in worldwide closures of cinemas due to economic restrictions and guidance against public gatherings, which has prompted direct-to-digital releases for several major films; the Chinese film Lost in Russia was acquired by ByteDance and streamed on its platforms (including TikTok) for free in lieu of a theatrical release, as part of a larger relationship with the company and the film’s distributor Huanxi Media.
A number of US films were shifted directly to video-on-demand rentals in lieu of a theatrical release, while some have been sold directly to subscription services, including Disney+, HBO Max, Netflix, and Prime Video.