When Paris Connections, a new movie based on a Jackie Collins novel, premieres at a cinema in London's Leicester Square on Sept. 2, the event will likely follow a time-honored script, with the film's stars as well as Collins herself emerging from limos onto the red carpet as scores of cameras flash and adoring fans cheer. Paris Connections' opening will, however, feature a plot twist. Once the end credits roll and the house lights come up, the film won't be heading for neighborhood theaters like other new releases. Instead, four days later it will go on sale as a DVD, exclusively at Tesco, the U.K.'s largest supermarket chain.
In a move that could open up a new avenue of DVD distribution and help revive the ailing home entertainment market, Tesco has teamed up with Hollywood production company Amber Entertainment to co-produce and co-finance Paris Connections. In a first-of-its-kind partnership, the supermarket and the moviemakers plan to churn out a string of direct-to-DVD films for Tesco, based on books by top-selling, mostly mass-market authors. "It's a win-win situation for both," explains Helen Davis Jayalath, senior analyst at London-based consultants Screen Digest. Tesco gets to offer its customers an exclusive product, while Amber's low-budget films receive the kind of high-level promotions typically associated with Hollywood fare.
The Tesco/Amber team is only adapting works by "brand-name" authors who have sold millions of books and gained legions of fans many of them the kinds of authors whose output is particularly popular at airport newsstands and in supermarkets. Coming down the pipeline: Tiger Eyes, based on a book by children's author Judy Blume, begins filming this fall, and cameras are scheduled to roll next spring on Martin Misunderstood, a crime comedy based on Karin Slaughter's novel. Tesco/Amber is also talking to other writers, including father-and-son writing team Dick and Felix Francis, His Dark Materials writer Philip Pullman and British crime writer Anne Perry. "These are authors who will appeal to our customers, who need no explaining," says Rob Salter, Tesco's head of entertainment.
For many of these authors, having a book turned into a Tesco/Amber production means their work reaches a much wider audience than your average made-for-TV movie. Another selling point for authors: They will be "heavily involved with story input and the creative process," says Lawrence Elman, an Amber cofounder. The movies won't be line-for-line reiterations of the books, he says, "but we aim to remain loyal to the creative vision that the author had." In return, Tesco/Amber expects the novelists to be on-hand to heavily promote the films.
After a film's one-off cinema screening, Tesco will sell the DVDs exclusively for three months, probably priced around $19, the same as other new releases. Given that Tesco alone accounts for 15% of DVD and Blu-ray Disc sales in Britain, the potential for huge sales is strong. Paris Connections which stars Charles Dance and Trudie Styler will be available only in the supermarket's U.K. and Irish outlets. But upcoming titles will be sold across its global chain of stores, which stretches through Eastern Europe and into Asia. After three months, the movies will be marketed in other countries, either as DVDs, theatrical releases or TV films, depending on the market.
Ileen Maisel, another Amber cofounder, says the arrangement with Tesco offers a "shrinking" film industry a new revenue stream, particularly for DVDs. Which would be a welcome boost, says Jayalath of Screen Digest. Worldwide sales of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs fell by 5.6% last year, and Screen Digest forecasts a similar slide for 2010.
Tesco, which also happens to be one of Britain's biggest booksellers, is banking on the DVD promotions pushing up book sales, too. It recently ran a special on Jackie Collins books as a lead-in to the premiere and DVD launch and sold an extra 25,000 copies. "[The films] are also a fantastic opportunity for cross-merchandizing," says Natalie Berg, an analyst at Planet Retail consultancy. Indeed, Tesco plans to suggest that shoppers hold their own Paris Connections "home premieres," complete with the French wines, cheeses and breads it will be promoting in tandem.
If Tesco's foray into filmmaking succeeds, look for other retailers to head for Hollywood, too. "I'm sure that others will try to emulate this," Salter says. "The challenge would be having the scale and footprint of Tesco." That wouldn't be a problem for the even larger Walmart, which has recently dabbled with moviemaking, too. Walmart and Procter and Gamble have already cosponsored two family-friendly made-for-TV movies which broadcast on NBC earlier this year, and more are in the works. For now, it seems Walmart is content to just have its named attached to a series of TV movies, but it will likely be watching Tesco's DVD project closely.
Tesco and Amber won't say how much they're investing in the project or spending on each film. They admit the films are low-budget affairs. Still, adds Amber cofounder Maisel, "they will look like, smell like and taste like a big-screen feature." Perhaps. But even if customers shun the films, at least Tesco has an option not available to other producers: it can put them on sale in the poultry section next to the other turkeys.