Par starts direct-to-video unit


Paramount Pictures has become the latest studio to set up a division dedicated to producing direct-to-video movies.

The division, yet to be named, will be run by Louis Feola, the former president of what is now Universal Studios Home Entertainment. After leaving the helm of the video division in 1998, Feola launched a direct-to-video unit at Universal that has since seen the production of nearly 50 movies, including sequels to theatrical product "The Land Before Time," "American Pie" and "Beethoven."

The new Paramount division will develop and produce sequels and prequels to, as well as remakes of, popular titles from the libraries of Paramount Pictures, Paramount Vantage, DreamWorks, MTV Films and Nickelodeon Movies as well as other Viacom brands.

"Paramount's library of titles and current and upcoming releases, combined with its access to exceptional brands within the Viacom family, makes for an extremely deep and broad selection of properties from which to develop franchises," Feola said.

Feola reports to Rob Moore, president of worldwide marketing, distribution and home entertainment at Paramount Pictures, and will be responsible for four to six films a year. His division will work closely with Paramount Home Entertainment but will maintain its own development and business affairs departments. Kelley Avery, worldwide president of home entertainment at Paramount, also reports to Moore.

"It's completely fresh ground for us," Moore said. "We've done very little in that area, and now with Louis we have someone who really has the skill sets to bring this together. We feel he can build this into a significant part of our business very quickly."

Moore believes the broad spectrum of product Paramount and its sister divisions have will provide plenty of opportunities for Feola and his team.

"We feel we have both franchise properties we haven't really developed as well as properties within our sister companies we can develop," Moore said.

Avery agreed. "Made-for-home-entertainment content is a category with huge growth opportunity for Paramount Home Entertainment," she said.

Paramount's move is indicative of the hottest trend in studio video circles: direct-to-video productions. Observers attribute the surge to various factors, including flattening DVD sales, a dearth of untapped, marketable theatrical catalog titles and the growth of new distribution channels to bring entertainment into the home, from high-definition discs to digital downloading.

In early February, MGM said that it had set up a direct-to-video business under feature film producer Jason Weiss that would be charged with the development and production of 12 or more films a year.

In August, Warner Bros. also launched a dedicated direct-to-video division, Warner Premiere, headed by veteran marketing executive Diane Nelson. Plans call for the unit to produce as many as 15 original films a year, beginning with the prequel "The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning," due March 13.

In addition, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment during the past 12 years has released more than 200 direct-to-video titles, both acquisitions and productions. And 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Universal Studios Home Entertainment are aggressively mining their theatrical catalogs for hit movies worthy of direct-to-video sequels; Universal scored big in January with "American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile," a second direct-to-video sequel to the theatrical hit "American Pie."

"The 'made-for' category is really starting to peak," Feola said. "For years, we toiled at Universal, trying to establish it as a category, and it took us a long time to get credibility with retail and with agents, writers and directors. Now, it's just starting to get to that level of attention it deserves."

At this point, Feola said, he's taking stock of the Paramount and Viacom libraries to identify possible targets. "The Paramount library is a natural first place to look," he said. "I'm also looking at (the studio's) current release slate, the current release slate from Vantage and catalog. Right now I am trying to prioritize. I have to figure out the best way to meet my business plan, and I also need to staff up, to bring people in to help me get that done."