''Legionnaire'' goes straight to video -- The Jean-Claude Van Damme action flick experiments with release order
Jean-Claude Van Damme’s next movie is Legionnaire, a $35 million action flick set in the 1920s in which the kickboxer escapes a murderous gangster by signing on with the French foreign legion. It won’t be in U.S. theaters for at least six months, but oddly enough, you can catch it on video starting Feb. 9.
That’s right, in what distributor Sterling Home Entertainment is touting as the ”direct-to-video event of the decade,” Legionnaire will turn Hollywood hierarchy on its head, premiering on tape and DVD/DVD-ROM, then airing this summer on cable’s USA Network, and then going to theaters, courtesy of Lions Gate Films.
”It’s an experiment,” acknowledges Lions Gate president Jeff Sackman. The Toronto-based indie, which owns Sterling in partnership with Imperial Entertainment, bet correctly at the box office on art-house hits like Buffalo ’66, Gods and Monsters, and Affliction. Could it be wise to the action market, too?
”The action picture today that audiences want to see is Armageddon, not The Specialist or Daylight, but on video those titles perform better than ever,” says Sterling president Sundip Shah. ”If this works, [you’ll] see a lot of mid-budget action pictures coming out like this, [and] not just from us.” Sackman sounds more cautious: ”Maybe there’ll be an audience for it in theaters and maybe there won’t.”
The downside risk, at least, looks small. Legionnaire producer Edward Pressman, who saw better days with Wall Street and The Crow, is already in the clear. He financed the movie by preselling its foreign rights and also made overseas TV deals for a 22-episode spin-off. Lions Gate, Sterling, and USA paid $7 million to $8 million total, says Pressman, a price that seems reasonable, considering that Van Damme’s most recent movie, Knock Off, has made $6 million in its first month on tape. Regarding the theatrical release, Shah says that his Lions Gate colleagues merely hope to ”make enough to recoup costs” for prints and advertising — about half a million dollars.
As for Van Damme, while it’s true, as Sackman gently phrases it, that ”theatrical consumers aren’t responding the way they used to,” he’s not headed straight for tape palookadom either. The star, now filming a Universal Soldier sequel, was unavailable for comment, but Sony exec Jeff Blake plans a wide release of that film and chalks up Legionnaire‘s odd path to market vagaries, noting that the sale of foreign rights helped Legionnaire get made but also discouraged potential distributors. ”I don’t think this is a trend,” says Blake. ”And certainly not specific to Jean-Claude.”