'Picture' sharpens DTV at MGM

Studio crows about getting Tisdale feature debut

Chalk one up for the burgeoning direct-to-video movement: MGM Home Entertainment's next project, "Picture This," stars none other than Ashley Tisdale.

The star of Disney's "High School Musical" and "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody" is making her feature-film debut in the coming-of-age comedy, which bows July 22 on DVD. Tisdale plays an unpopular high school senior who gets a date to the biggest party of the year with the school's most sought-after guy, only to find herself grounded on the appointed date. So she enlists her friends and video phone to outsmart her dad — as well as her date's ex-girlfriend.

"We were fortunate to get the Ashley movie," said Charlie Cohen, who spearheads MGM's DTV initiative. "Two factors contributed. First, our timing was good, and we were able to get her before she became big, and secondly, we had a script that she really liked, especially the relationship between the father and her character."

Cohen said not only is Tisdale "very talented, but because of 'High School Musical,' she brings immediate recognition and purchasing interest on the part of our target audience."

Tisdale, responding via e-mail, said the script is what attracted her to the project. "When I read the script for 'Picture This,' I just fell in love with the lead character, Mandy, this goofy, unpopular girl-next-door who knows what she wants but isn't willing to sacrifice who she is to get it," Tisdale said. "Mandy's real, and I think a lot of kids will relate to that. It reminds me a lot of when I was in high school. I wasn't really in the popular group, but I wasn't in the nerdy group. I was somewhere in the middle, too."

"Picture This," executive produced by Tisdale's Blondie Girl Films and directed by Stephen Herek ("Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure"), is the latest DTV feature from MGM since the studio entered the direct-to-video business in January 2007. Like similar initiatives at other studios, MGM generally plies its catalog for films worthy of sequels, banking on awareness of the original theatrical feature to drive interest. But that's not the only game plan in play, Cohen said.

"We've made about 10 movies in the last year, ranging from two movies based on 'Stargate SG-1,' our popular science-fiction TV series, to family movies like 'The Cutting Edge 3,' 'Legally Blondes' and 'Picture This,' " he said. "We've also done horror movies and thrillers like 'Bumper' and 'The Betrayed' as well as a couple of action movies, including a 'War Games' sequel."

The primary audience for DTV films, Cohen said, is "young men and women who are attracted to the movie because the title is familiar, or because the cast is appealing to them. We tend to cast television actors from popular series that have younger-skewing demographics. When we have an original title, like 'Picture This,' we look for a unique marketing and promotion aspect that will help make the title stand out."

With Tisdale on board, that shouldn't be a problem.

Cohen said that as the field becomes increasingly crowded — most of the majors either have a DTV initiative in place or have launched a dedicated DTV label — it is incumbent to up the ante in budget and star power.

"I think the studios have all gotten into this business because they recognized an opportunity to make money while also extending some franchises or brands," Cohen said. "That being said, there's a lot more DTV product being produced and released now, so that makes it tougher to get any new movie to stand out to the consumer — not too unlike the theatrical business.

"There is still money to be made in this area, but it is definitely getting tougher and tougher every week."