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The direct-to-video king

CANNES, France -- Faithful readers will recall that when the home video revolution was new, I interviewed a man at Cannes who sold movies by the pound. His motto: "Back up your car and I'll load up the trunk."

His formula was to advertise in Variety for "finished movies," buy them for peanuts, give them new titles and commission dramatic artwork for the covers. He confessed that the movies inside had nothing to do with the titles or the artwork.

"Don't the customers complain?" I asked.

"They get the movie they think they're buying, plus the one I sell them," he explained. "Two for the price of one!"

It is now the 21st century, and home video consumers are no longer taken in by bait-and-switch tactics. Meet Doug Schwab. He makes real movies with real stars at rock-bottom prices, and distributes them direct to video. When he was 15, he went to work in the first video store in New Orleans. Now he is 37 and did $12 million last year. There are producers here with names you would recognize who didn't do $12 million last year.

I met Schwab because he was sitting at the next table at La Pizza, down by the old yacht harbor. For as long as anyone can remember, the establishment has been run by Adrien Passigli, the Danny DeVito of pizza. He makes the best pizza in Cannes. I know because a local guy sitting on the other side told me so. You always meet the people who are sitting at the next table in France, because they are closer than the people who are sitting at your table in America. If you can't find your napkin, just wipe your mouth on the next guy's elbow.

"We have a great new tactic," Schwab was telling me. "We take the formula of a classic movie and remake it as an urban picture. For example, remember 'The Apartment' with Jack Lemmon? Terrific picture. We remade it as 'The Crib.' This young guy in the music business has all these older executives who want a place to take their ladies. You remember the story. Now we're making 'Keeping It Real,' which is a remake of 'It Happened One Night,' starring the rap singer Kurupt."

Schwab used to be a buyer for Blockbuster. Then he met Tanya York, a 19-year-old Jamaican who had made her own movie and was trying to sell it to Blockbuster. It was called "Return to Frogtown." She was trying so hard to sell it, Schwab said, that "she pulled at my heartstrings."

He decided she had a winning formula with direct-to-video cheapies, and went into business with her. "The company is called York-Maverick Ltd.," he said. "She's president of York and I'm president of Maverick. She didn't want to work for me, and vice versa."

The Y-M catalog now numbers about 400 titles, Schwab said. "A lot of them star rap singers. It's a funny thing. The music stars all want to be in movies, and the movie stars all want to be in music. We have Brian Hooks in 'Nothing to Loose.' It cost less than $500,000 and is No. 4 on the direct-to-video charts."

The key to his success, he said, is the artwork on the cover of his videos. "We give good art," he explained. "You walk into Best Buy, you see 50 copies of 'Gladiator' and four copies of our new DVD. So the art has to sell it. You take 'Out Kold,' our new title starring Ice-T, Tiny Lister Jr. and Kool Moe Dee. You look at the artwork on that box, you'll think it's a theatrical film that'll be nominated for awards."

Schwab uses young directors. "We like them to have one movie under their belt, so they know how to work with a small budget."

I said he sounded like the Roger Corman of his time. Corman was the legendary 1960s exploitation producer who gave breaks to young directors like Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

"I would be honored to be compared to Corman," Schwab said. "Our films may not stand up to his, but in sheer volume, we're getting closer."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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