Small Screen, Big Step

DEJ Productions tries to give "direct-to-video" a good name

Direct-to-video--it's the ultimate pejorative in the movie bidness, a sure sign that box you're eyeballing on the Blockbuster shelf smells of yesterday's leftovers. And, yeah, DEJ's roster is littered with titles not even the deaf and blind could stomach--titles such as Operation Delta Force 5 (who knew?), The Princess and the Barrio Boy, Strip Poker: Red Shoes Diary 18, Gunblast Vodka (a comedy about snuff films, dear God, starring model Angie Everhart, dear God) and on and on. Segan reminds that those kinds of films are done extremely inexpensively--most for around $100,000 to $200,000--and were picked up on the cheap to flesh out the inventory. (And, fact is, a lot of that low-budget, lowbrow product does well in Europe--then again, so did fascism.)

But for every 30 stinkers that linger on the shelves, wonting for attention alongside better-known theatrical releases, there is indeed the rare nugget of which Wilson so fondly speaks--something like Boondock Saints or the gambling thriller The Runner, a 1999 movie starring Friends' Courteney Cox, John Goodman and Black Hawk Down's Ron Eldard. DEJ has also distributed smaller indie films that did receive limited theatrical runs, among them the Barenaked Ladies' documentary Barenaked in America, the Iranian film A Time for Drunken Horses and other films that recently made the rounds as part of the critically adored Shooting Gallery Film Series. (Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles, who ran the Shooting Gallery series, says those were limited pickups; Blockbuster and DEJ had exclusive rights to those movies for only three months last year.)

And because DEJ is connected to Blockbuster and its parent company, the publicly owned Viacom--which has beneath its umbrella such mighty media outlets as MTV, Showtime, Starz, Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures--DEJ also has access to made-for-TV movies and miniseries, among them Anne Rice's The Feast of All Saints and Ruby's Bucket of Blood, both of which aired initially on Showtime last year. It actually works both ways: DEJ will pick up films for video release that will later air on Showtime or Starz, and Wilson says the company has begun preliminary talks with MTV and Nickelodeon about sharing product.

Diamonds amid the coal:  The Runner and Boondock Saints are among the best of the rest rescued by  DEJ Productions.
Diamonds amid the coal: The Runner and Boondock Saints are among the best of the rest rescued by DEJ Productions.

But, as Wilson reminds, "Sometimes, when you're so close, you stay the furthest apart. One thing to remember is DEJ is a wholly owned subsidiary of Blockbuster and a separate entity, and we operate that way. I think that it opens doors for us, but at the same time it's not a guarantee of distribution the way it is within the Blockbuster stores. So, who knows? You may see something come down the road, but at this point, I don't see it in the immediate future."

Since DEJ operates as an independent company within Blockbuster, it allows for all kinds of freedom: DEJ's handful of employees, from its top execs to its receptionist, watch all films submitted for consideration and put them to a vote; it also puts its product not just in Blockbuster's 8,000 outlets worldwide, but also in competing stores, such as Hollywood Video, which likewise is looking for product outside normal studio channels.

DEJ also is beginning to flex a mighty muscle: This week, it expects to sign a deal with a major studio to release a $50 million production, which the studio wants to dump before it spends one more penny on promotion and distribution. Wilson and Stead won't discuss it until contracts are signed sometime this week--but if nothing else, the impending deal hints that DEJ isn't content to take the best of the rest any longer.

"When we started, there was that initial fear that we were that big corporation filmmakers didn't want to come near," Wilson says. "In fact, the first time we went to Sundance, people didn't know why we were there or what we were up to. A lot of filmmakers initially have this belief that they're not a success unless they end up in a theater...These people have put a lot of heart and soul into these films. In a lot of cases, it's a labor of love. They all want to be Spielberg and all want to make tons of money eventually, but I think that in a lot of these early projects, they put everything into it, and I would love to see theatrical release. But I think they're now coming to terms with the fact theatrical release isn't available for everything. We offer up exposure to people, which, when it comes down to it, is really what they want."

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