Direct-to-video ‘Bling’ is ringer on rental charts

November 27, 2002 by Thomas k. arnold

A strange thing is happening on the video rental charts. There, in the top 10, among such huge theatrical hits as Spider-Man, The Sum of All Fears and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, is a virtually unknown action flick, Bling Bling, that never played in a movie theater. It came out on video Nov. 12 and in two weeks was No. 6 on Billboard’s list of top rentals.

Bling Bling – the title is slang for flashy jewelry, cars and other signs of new (often drug-related) wealth – tells the tale of a rap artist who has hit the big time only to discover that his record company is a front for drug running. Written, directed and produced by first-time New York filmmaker Mark Clayborne, the R­ rated film features unknown actors and was acquired for less than $500,000 by York Entertainment, a tiny Los Angeles­ based distributor that specializes in direct-to-video movies with urban appeal. To crack the top 10, a rental typically has to take in $2.5 million, a level reached only rarely by a direct­-to-video title.

“We’re very ex­cited,” says Tanya York, a veteran film producer who founded the com­pany in 1990. “We saw the potential in the film. We’ve proven that there is high demand for urban product – even on a straight-to-video level.

York releases more than 50 films directly to video a year, including such titles as Bania Wars, Black Listed and Hood Angels. But York says the audience for her videos is broader than those labeled “urban” –  gener­ally black viewers.

“It’s really a generational thing, the young people, the MTV crowd,” York says. “They like fast-paced ac­tion and comedies.” It’s the same broad audience that made hits out of more mainstream films such as The Fast and the Furious, Barbershop and the Friday series.

Urban videos are not an automatic money ma­chine, however. Retailer Halsey Blake-Scott, the own­er of Beyond Video/Sneak Reviews in Charlottesville, Va., says it’s a hit-and-miss genre. “Some of it has been a veritable cash cow, and others I can’t give away,” he says. “But I do continue to regularly buy product with urban appeal. My store is in a highly varied area, de­mographically speaking.”

Lots of other retailers apparently feel the same way, because York is just one of a growing number of video suppliers that focus on urban product. Other compa­nies include MTI, UrbanWorks and Xenon Entertain­ment, which claims to be the granddaddy of them all. Wal-Mart, Blockbuster Video, Best Buy, Target, Kmart and Sam’s Club have begun stocking Xenon titles, which include the documentaries Welcome to Death Row and Tupac Shakur: Before I Wake.

“Numerous studies have suggested  that the black consumer buys movie tickets and rents videos in greater numbers than their white counterparts,” says Leigh Savidge, a former standup comedian who start­ed Xenon. “So the success of the ‘urban’ genre has been rooted in practical economics.”

Xenon’s next big push will be toward the growing Latino market; the company has a three-year deal with Grupo Televisa,  the largest producer and dis­tributor of Spanish-language programming in the world, and Xenon is aiming for at least 40 releases in the first year.

“There are always going to be people who feel that what they want to see is not being represented in the marketplace and don’t understand why the studios aren’t making certain kinds of films,” Savidge says. “The major studios always make a value judgment on the extent of a proposed film’s audience and then crunch the numbers to determine what their comfort zone is. As a result, there are many ethnic films that don’t get made because the size of the budgets ex­ceed studio appetites.”