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What is a Direct-To-Video Release?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A direct-to-video release is a theatrical release which is not distributed in movie theaters. There are a number of reasons for a studio or producer to choose to release a title in this way, ranging from a desire to cut down on costs to disputes over distribution contracts. People sometimes use “direct-to-video” in a disparaging way, to suggest that such releases are inferior, but in fact many excellent productions are released directly to the video market without spending time in the theater.

Videocassettes are on the decline, leading some people to refer to direct-to-video releases as “direct-to-DVD,” referencing the more popular distribution format. Some filmmakers have also used the Internet to distribute their content, in a direct-to-Internet release which allows people to watch streaming content or pay to download the content.

One of the most common reasons to choose a direct-to-video release is that it tends to be less costly than a theatrical release. Distribution contracts for movie theaters can get quite complex and very expensive, requiring supportive marketing campaigns and the costly duplication and distribution of the physical film used in screenings. Sequels, low-budget films, or movies which don't appeal to a wide audience may be released directly to video to save costs.

Some productions cannot secure distribution, a common problem for independent filmmakers. Lack of affiliation with a major studio can make it very difficult to get a film into theaters, which is why filmmakers compete heatedly at events like the Sundance Film Festival to get their films picked up by major theatrical distributors. A producer may also make a conscious choice to avoid the politics and complexity of film distribution out of fear that it may compromise the production.

Television networks have also been known to use the direct-to-video technique for canceled shows. In some cases, shows which do not perform well on air end up having very strong DVD sales, allowing the network to recoup the cost of the production. Direct-to-video releases may also be used for supplementary material such as bonus materials and spinoffs which the network does not want to air. Many networks specifically design content like this for Internet distribution, drawing in fans to the network website with promises of deleted scenes, webisodes, and other content which is not broadcast.

On occasion, a planned direct-to-video release will wind up in movie theaters. Studios may change their minds and decide that a film is viable in the theater, or a film may acquire a distribution contract at the last minute, allowing it to be screened in theaters. Sometimes, these last minute reprieves pave the way for smash hits.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By gravois — On Apr 28, 2012

I remember that the silliest direct to video movie I ever saw on the shelves was called Snakes on a Train. It was meant to ride the coattails of the much better known Snakes on a Plane.

By jonrss — On Apr 28, 2012

I worked at a Blockbuster in the 90s and I ended up seeing a ton of direct to video movies. Mostly they deserve the reputation that they have. But there were a few surprises.

When you think about it you would expect to have a couple of gems in the bunch. It is really hard to break into Hollywood. Talented filmmakers often never get a shot to work at the highest level. They end up working for smaller production companies that produce direct to video films.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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