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Indies Tune Into TV

30 Jul, 2004 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Is TV-on-DVD the great level playing field for home video suppliers big and small?

Bill Bromiley believes it is. That's why First Look Home Entertainment eagerly grabbed up video distribution rights to “Unsolved Mysteries” and is now aggressively hunting for more TV programming to release on DVD.

“Unlike the theatrical marketplace, where it's a lot harder for us to compete, we can go up against any major,” said Bromiley, First Look's SVP of sales and distribution. “Buying post-theatrical films, there aren't many available of any significance with a gross of more than about $2 million. But I can easily pick up a top 10 TV show that has a lot of built-in awareness, like ‘Unsolved Mysteries.’

Bromiley isn't the only executive who feels that way. A growing number of independents are venturing into the lucrative TV-on-DVD market, bent on going toe-to-toe with the majors.

Aside from First Look, other suppliers new to TV-on-DVD include New Line Home Entertainment and MTI Home Video.

New Line Sept. 7 will release all 43 episodes of the newest “Twilight Zone,” produced by New Line Television, in a six-disc set retailing for $59.98. MTI, a longtime supplier of genre films, will take a crack at TV programming this fall by releasing “Bliss,” a steamy anthology series on the Oxygen network.

“The market is booming,” said Matt Lasorsa, EVP of marketing for New Line. “We felt it made perfect sense for us to get our feet wet with one of our sister company's properties.”

“The opportunity presented itself with ‘Bliss' and after watching the series and liking the content, we decided to take a shot,” said Larry Brahms, president of MTI.

Those sentiments are shared by other independents.

“TV exposure is, in many ways, equal to box office exposure,” said Dan Gurlitz, VP of video for Koch Entertainment, with TV releases that include a series of topical ABC News specials such as “The Search for Jesus” and “The War in Iraq.”

“There is a lot of TV product out there,” added Paul Freehauf, VP of marketing and production development for Eagle Rock Entertainment, which has scored big with Comedy Central's “The Man Show.” “There are also plenty of distinctly different fans and fan bases out there.”

That said, indies don't often get first dibs on hot network hits like “Friends.” And, with the exception of New Line, they do not have the luxury of affiliated TV production companies. But there's plenty of other good product ripe for the taking. “Even though the major studios have the majority of the hit shows, they couldn't possibly release everything that's available,” said Malik Ali, COO of MPI Home Video, which has brought to DVD such classics as “Dark Shadows” and “The Rifleman.”

“Our strength is in releases that are just beloved and have niche audiences,”added Paul DeGooyer, VP of Rhino Home Video.

Unlike most indies, Rhino is an old hand at releasing TV shows on DVD. The quirky supplier, now part of the Warner Bros. family, has been in the TV business for 17 years. Rhino's huge catalog of TV shows consists mostly of classic series such as “The Monkees,” “My Favorite Martian” and “Mystery Science Theater.” In the pipeline: “Too Close For Comfort” (Oct. 26) and the second season of “Land of the Lost.”

Another supplier focusing on classic TV is Anchor Bay Entertainment, which just inked a deal with Stephen J. Cannell, one of the most prolific TV producers of the past few decades, for such series as “21 Jump Street” and “Hunter.”

“For every ‘West Wing' fan, there's a consumer who is interested in ‘21 Jump Street' or ‘Hunter,’ said Anchor Bay CEO Ted Green. “People love to reminisce.”

Image Entertainment is tackling an ambitious classic TV project: high-definition transfers of the complete, original “Twilight Zone” series. The first-season boxed set bows Dec. 28.

But classic TV isn't the only programming niche for indies. Koch, which this year stepped up its involvement in the TV-on-DVD market, “has found a booming market for properties ranging from news to cartoons to miniseries to music,” Gurlitz said. In October, Koch will launch the “PBS Soundstage” series, 14 concerts by such artists as Tom Petty and Chicago that originally aired last year on PBS.

Indies also are coming up with increasingly inventive ways to market their niche TV product. While the major studios spend most of their dollars on network TV, indies prefer cable, particularly specialized channels that allow them to pinpoint their audience. First Look, for example, will run commercials for “Unsolved Mysteries” on Lifetime, on which the show still airs. Rhino runs spots for “Mystery Science Theater” on the Sci-Fi Channel and uses the Cartoon Network to promote its cartoon compilations.

Direct-response often factors in. Rhino will launch its “Candid Camera” line with a direct-response campaign before retail release. Respond2-Entertainment had direct-response success with Johnny Carson's “Tonight Show” and “Sonny & Cher.”

Sometimes the best marketing doesn't cost a dime. Wellspring Media promotes its British TV mysteries through a well-oiled publicity machine that focuses on the Mystery Guild “and getting reviews in magazines that mystery aficionados read,” said Mark Gilula, EVP of home entertainment. “If we do our job in publicity, any consumer can then go to one of the many Internet retailers and get the programming,” he said. Internet sales, Gilula said, account for 30 percent of Wellspring's sales.

Rhino will tap into Internet fan sites and bulletin boards. “A lot of fans do the marketing for us,” DeGooyer said. “They post our press release on their bulletin boards.”

Eagle Rock's Freehauf also believes in marketing directly to fans, “preaching to the converted.” “As indies, we don't necessarily need home runs. Singles, doubles and an occasional triple work for us,” he said.

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