Life on the Fringe

Straight to Video

Straight to video. Perhaps it's just me, but those words rarely bring any sort of significant excitement. Typically, I have fleeting images of actors past their prime playing roles fit for porn stars. And no, I don't really include porn as part of the straight to video market. I think we can all safely put that genre in the corner. By itself. Roped off so kids cannot easily access it.

It's safer that way.

When I was younger, movies or animation that went straight to video - that is, stuff that never saw a theatrical release and never aired on television - was not worth watching. Most of the time, I could count on it to be crap.

For the record, I'm still a fan of Disney products. Don't take that to mean I am a fan of the way they produce their products, or the lackluster subtitling job they did on their recent Miyazaki releases, or the fact that most of their recently animated features pale in comparison to the classics that they were putting out regularly about a decade ago.

Yet I still watch their movies. I thought The Emperor's New Groove was extremely funny (mostly thanks to Patrick Warburton), and even films like the goofy Home on the Range or somewhat predictable Treasure Planet (c'mon, I read the book) eventually find a place in my DVD library.

But not their direct to video releases. I don't care about those, and I probably never will. It is not exactly because of the lower production values, though most of the time these video-only productions aren't nearly as well animated as the originals. It's also not just because they frequently feature new voice actors - that is understandable, as well.

I simply have an aversion to films that go straight to video. It does not make sense most of the time (although if you've seen the video-only release of Starship Troopers 2, it makes a LOT of sense), but there it is.

Financially, however, it seems relatively safe. Disney video sequels are an easy sell to parents who aren't sure what they should get their kids. They've seen The Lion King. They've seen Aladdin. When they see a happy little "2" posted after those beloved titles, they can count on getting something that will entertain the kids, even if the films won't win Disney any Oscars.

I have this bias, and yet some of my favorite shows from Japan started out as OVAs. There are actually two common abbreviations that get tossed about when referring to straight to video animation releases in Japan, OAVs (original animated videos) and OVAs (original video animation), though they mean exactly the same thing. Read or Die, Ah! My Goddess and Rurouni Kenshin all had direct to video releases along with TV or theatrical editions of the same story (though Kenshin was quite different from the TV series of the same name).

Plenty of shows that are worth watching - shows that I enjoy - were originally produced and released as straight to video series in Japan. So lately, I was wondering what would happen if the domestic straight to video scene was as impressive as the situation in Japan.

What really got me thinking about this was going home to visit my parents and my girlfriend's parents. They have cable - something we're not able to afford - and yet, there really wasn't much of anything worth watching. We started talking about the days when good stuff was on TV - Buffy and Angel, in particular. I also enjoyed Firefly, though we will have to wait until next year to see the feature film based on that short-lived series.

While the series are gone from television, they seem to be enjoying a rather profitable afterlife on the home video scene. In general, it seems as if releasing TV series on DVD is a lucrative idea. It certainly works for me. I've purchased shows such as Batman: The Animated Series, Samurai Jack, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast and many others, despite the fact that some of them are still on television for free.

The appeal of being able to watch these shows on demand, commercial free, repeatedly, and with increased audio fidelity (admittedly not a significant factor in the Space Ghost talk show) was too much for me to pass on.

It would seem as if I'm not the only one buying this stuff, either. The sales of The Family Guy on DVD, combined with impressive ratings on the Cartoon Network, helped resurrect the bawdy (and hilarious) series to a new life. Even niche series such as Quantum Leap were welcomed by brisk sales when made available to the general public on DVD.

What if cancelled shows could live again in North America by becoming straight to video series? Would the fans of Firefly be willing to pay for a show they are no longer able to see thanks to poor ratings, a shortsighted network, or other factors leading to cancellation?

Projects such as Stephen Kennedy's Majestic Mix (http://www.kfssstudios.com/) got off the ground with little more than dedicated fans providing money up front for a product that they would support. What if the significantly larger Joss Whedon fanbase pooled their funds to help generate some more Joss goodness?

This sort of production certainly lends itself to animation more than live action shows. After all, with animation, you don't need to worry about the cast and crew as much. Animated characters don't have the same problems with aging and ego-tripping that their live-action counterparts may evince from time to time. Yet I can't help but fantasize about dying shows (such as the live action version of The Tick) marching on to the tune of a dedicated group of fans.

I suppose we'll just have to see how many aspects of anime culture make it over here as time goes on. The rise of the North American OVA (in a form that goes beyond more than Disney sequels and Bible-inspired animation) could be quite a significant development over here. The effects of such a phenomenon could easily infiltrate more than just the domestic animation industry if it took off with the same momentum that anime and manga currently have over here.

For now, I guess I'll just have to keep on hoping for direct to video releases that are worth buying. And in the meantime, I'll be waiting for next fall when Serenity finally hits theatres.

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