It's a rare thing to be on the same airplane as a famous person, and even rarer to be on the same airplane as a famous person who knows who you are. Yet on American Airlines Flight 2704 from Los Angeles to Las Vegas the afternoon of July 7, I found myself experiencing the latter case. As he got up out of his first class seat to talk to his manager (seated on a diagonal from me) while the "Fasten Seatbelts" sign was still aglow, I spotted Scream star and sporadic Movie Report reader Jamie Kennedy. (Ever on their toes, flight attendants quickly forced him to take his seat.)
I thought nothing in my first day in Las Vegas--or my entire stay, for that matter--would match that surreal moment, but that notion quickly evaporated upon first encounter with what would be a recurring image during my entire stay: that of the pre-pubescent starlets competing in the "Starpower" dance competition that was held in a Venetian meeting room a mere hop, skip, and a jump away from the VSDA convention (and, I must note, the VSDA's sister conference, the self-explanatory Adult Video News convention). Oh, did I ever wish I were able to sneak a peek into those festivities and see the ruthless stage mothers catfighting and telling their daughters how incredibly talented they are after prancing around onstage in sequins and glitter. But I had to content myself with merely the daily sight of the girls running through the halls in full, flamboyant Jon Benet/Tammy Faye regalia, looking less rookie Rockette (as the parents certainly would like to think) than latent lapdancer.
This being the day before the official kickoff of the convention, true VSDA business was limited to a quick check-in at the modest facility that served as the official press room. But with no true business to conduct just yet, many companies took this Friday night as an excuse to party. Leading the hot ticket list was Playboy's annual Wet & Wild Party, with this year's central guest being the one woman who gives golddiggers an even worse name, Darva Conger. Filling out the party docket were bashes thrown by 20th Century Fox, Anchor Bay, and New Line.
Being the low-level person that I am, I (and my friend and fellow Online Film Critics Society member Bill Chambers, with whom I hung out throughout the weekend) only got an invite to one party, that being New Line's Final Destination-themed event at a club prosaically named The Beach. Perhaps I should say that it was Final Destination-themed largely in name only, for outside of the faux boarding pass tickets, some opened luggage strewn by the entryway, and the film being played on monitors throughout the building (along with two other forthcoming New Line Home Video releases, Love & Basketball and Price of Glory), the whole plane crash motif wasn't played out.
What did get played out--and mightily quickly at that--was the cover band hired to jazz up the proceedings. While the featured female vocalist wasn't half bad, most of the time she was relegated to backing up the insufferable male lead singer as he painfully treated the crowd to his interpretations of hits originated by the likes of Smash Mouth and... Tone Loc. I could've lived a long, healthy life without ever having the distinct experience of hearing the most un-soulful white guy imaginable struggling through "Funky Cold Medina." (So now, I assume, a short, dysfunctional life is in the cards for me.)
New Line was the undisputed giveaway champ of the entire convention (more on that later), and the die was cast with the goodies given to guests at their party. One size fits all T-shirts bearing the logos of the three promoted films were available by the armload (they were literally there for the taking), but rationed out to one per guest was a small white paper gift bag bearing the Final Destination logo and tied off with an FD luggage tag. Tucked inside were a Price of Glory towel and boxing glove keychain as well as an airline pack of peanuts.
Celebrity turnout at the New Line party was mostly limited to those who were scheduled to appear at autograph signings for the studio throughout the weekend. I briefly met up with Kennedy (on hand to promote Boiler Room) at the party, and I had run-ins with his Boiler co-star Ron Rifkin; eccentric auteur John Waters, Love & Basketball writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood and co-star Dennis Haysbert; Next Friday co-stars Tiny Lister and the gorgeous Lisa Rodriguez; Final Destination co-star Kerr Smith; and Frequency co-star Noah Emmerich and brother Toby, who wrote the film. Also in attendance, though not on official New Line business despite his place in the Austin Powers family, was Scott Evil himself, Seth Green.
A couple of celebrity encounters did stand out. First was with trick co-star J.P. Pitoc, with whom I found myself in full-blown conversation as he waited patiently for the results of a New York Mets game to appear on a monitor set to a news channel. His decision to get someone to take a picture of us together proved to be an unfortunate one--turns out that as the photo was taken, on came the Mets game score, which he missed. (He didn't seem to count that against me, though, for he took the time out to say goodbye to me later that night, before he headed to the greener pastures of the Playboy party.) Not as long but more memorable was my meeting with former Baywatch babe Traci Bingham, who, out of her own free will, provocatively rubbed her rear against my hip area as she posed for a photo with me. Just a couple of more inches to the left, and she would've been giving me an upright lapdance.
The VSDA convention and expo had its official opening with Saturday afternoon's general session. This showcase of somewhat dry speeches and awkward emcee work (in particular that done by one video trade magazine editor, who bore a more than a passing resemblance to the guy who played the annoying Bania on Seinfeld) was peppered by a few moments of entertainment value. Kicking off the ceremony was a videotaped introduction by Jeff Foxworthy, once again trotting out his long-tired "redneck" schtick. This was followed by a moderately amusing live set from comedian Bill Engvall, another graduate from the school of country-themed comedy. My guess is that the one-two punch of Southern-fried humor was to set a laid-back, unpretentious tone for the program, but, as I had mentioned, it ended up not being completely immune to stuffiness.
An exception to that, as far as the speeches were concerned, was Artisan Entertainment CEO Amir Malin's keynote address. His long pitch for the end of wasteful studio spending by way of a revised corporate construct is peppered with an occasional joke (a token Survivor reference went over well) and interspersed with self-deprecating mock-documentary footage detailing his early life and rise to the head of Artisan. However, one grand stunt backfired on Malin: as proof of his claim that his company's low-overhead mentality does not mean diminished quality, he presented exclusive footage from the forthcoming Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. I don't know about you, but a quick-cut montage of people screaming, jumping up and down a bed, and smearing blood on their faces is not a signifier of quality (or at least good quality). What it signifies to me is another of those schlocky Halloween-timed horror flicks that score a big open before having its grosses plummet with each successive weekend.
The big awards ceremony was dealt a severe blow with the illness-forced absence of Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Gregory Peck. He gave a gracious acceptance speech by audio tape, and his son was on hand to physically accept the statue. However, Rising Star of the Year honoree Frankie Muniz, of My Dog Skip and Malcolm in the Middle fame, was able to make it and gave a charmingly ebullient speech befitting someone his young age.
The general session came to a close with one final "entertainment" bit, a live performance/demonstration by Mr. Tae-Bo himself, Billy Blanks. Despite his incredible popularity, at this point he was playing to a mostly empty house; the capacity crowd had gradually trickled out as the clock approached, and then passed, 4:00pm, which was the scheduled time for both the session's end and the opening of the showroom. Blanks began his routine at about quarter past, at which time I made my exit.
Despite the reassurance on the general session program sheet that the showroom would not open until it had been completed, I arrived there to find the madness in full swing; the big ribbon cutting ceremony with David Arquette had long since passed. The aisles were crowded with people lugging around already-full bags of swag; lines for the first batch of celebrity autograph signings grew with the second.
Given the fairly abbreviated hours (4pm-9pm) for this day of activity, I made a point of hitting all the major studios' displays before covering the smaller companies. But given that only three had displays on the floor, the task went a lot more quickly than I expected.
New Line Home Video: New Line had the most elaborately designed booth at the convention, continuing the Final Destination (due in video stores September 26) motif. Situated right in front of the doors to the showroom, the first thing one sees when coming in is their large-scale replica of a crashed plane. With its never-ending stream of promotional giveaways (ranging from Next Friday soundtracks and Boiler Room money pens to Austin Powers backpacks and actual Sarah Rose cosmetics from Drop Dead Gorgeous), basketball game (to win Austin Powers action figures) and free offer for an animated Final Destination keychain with your picture in it, New Line was perhaps the most popular stop at the convention. Their profile was also bolstered by appearances from stars from their recent and upcoming video titles; headlining Day One were Jamie Kennedy and Ron Rifkin from Boiler Room (now available) and John Waters, touting the "John Waters Collection" video box set (now available).
Warner Home Video: Even if they didn't have their large faux water tower with them, the Warner booth would be easily distinguishable by having the longest autograph lines. Day One brought the appearances of Muniz and Skip himself of My Dog Skip (now available) and Arquette, pushing the misbegotten wrestling comedy Ready to Rumble (September 19). Not to be outdone, various animated characters, such as Batman (the Beyond incarnation), Tweety, and Sylvester, greeted the people in line. Warner also gave out a few goodies, but not to the extent of their sister company, New Line. Among the items were WB Sport watches and The Iron Giant yo-yos. There was also the offer to take your picture for a "Merry Grinchmas" Christmas card, a promo for the VHS and DVD release of the classic animated special Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment: Disney had one of the cleaner booth designs, with sleek tables, a number of large TV monitors upon which upcoming DVDs were screened, and a computer fixed on their BVHE.com retailer website. Showcased in faux video displays were forthcoming releases Toy Story 2 (October 17) and The Tigger Movie (August 22). Other showcased items were Mission to Mars (September 12), which got some play on the monitors; and the Scream DVD collector's set, trumpeted with a large poster (September).
The big boys easily taken care of, I was able to stop by a few of the smaller companies and sample their lineup.
Tai Seng Video: Tai Seng is the leading distributor of Hong Kong cinema in the United States, boasting a large catalog of films featuring such superstars as Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Jet Li. Perhaps their most noteworthy release for the fall is The Phantom Lover (September 19), an epic romance from Ronny Yu, director of the romantic martial arts fantasy masterpiece The Bride with White Hair (and, regrettably, some really bad American films).
WinStar Home Video: In my opinion, the crown jewel of this indie distributor's upcoming lineup is the DVD two-pack of John Woo's seminal action thrillers The Killer and Hard-Boiled (October 3), featuring newly recorded director's commentary. About a month before, on September 5, comes five additional installments of their ongoing documentaries on film directors, produced in affiliation with the American Film Institute. In this wave (the fifth) the featured auteurs are Martin Scorsese, David Cronenberg, Clint Eastwood, Wes Craven, and (ugh) Barbra Streisand.
Central Park Media: One of the leading distributors of anime titles, Central Park is also responsible for the live action "Asia Pulp Cinema" line, which is what really caught my eye while watching their trailer tapes. After all, who could not be intrigued by a Japanese action comedy titled Big Boobs Buster (now available), in which a flatchested vigilante takes violent revenge against the buxom in the name of modestly endowed women everywhere?
Sunland Studios: Specializing in direct-to-video product, the former PM Entertainment pushed a number of titles with recognizable names: The Spring, a thriller starring Kyle MacLachlan and Alison Eastwood; The Lake, a horror film starring Yasmine Bleeth and ex-Happy Days mom Marion Ross; Harvest, a drama starring a pre-Dawson's Creek James Van Der Beek; Clubland, directed by Mary Lambert and featuring music stars Steven Tyler and Terence Trent D'Arby; and the Antonio Sabato Jr. action vehicle The Chaos Factor. Also on their slate is the teen comedy Jailbait, which premiered on MTV. One of their headliners, former TV Superman Dean Cain, made an in-person appearance to promote the actioner Firetrap. (In fact, since his TV show's demise, Cain has become a busy man in the straight-to-tape market; both Avalanche Home Entertainment and Studio Home Entertainment were also pushing their own Cain starrers.)
I was able to retreat from the aggressive buy/sell atmosphere with visits to two areas of the showroom not about potential product in video stores. The first was the much-touted "DVD Festival" area, featuring displays devoted to the latest in DVD technology. Despite the title, I cannot say this was really a "festival," given how few booths were actually part of it. Not too far from that was the display of items up for silent auction, the proceeds going to the Video Industry AIDS Action Committee. Most of the items were signed one-sheets, from films as old as The Godfather and as new as the then-yet-to-be-released X-Men. But there were also some non-poster items up for grabs, such as the coat Julianne Moore sported in Magnolia.
The DVD festivities had their highlight at the beginning of Day Two with the two-hour DVD Supersession, held at the Venetian's C2K Theater, which in lighting and atmosphere bore similarity to the set for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The presentation of some DVD statistics of varying interest by representatives from Alexander & Associates, the DVD Entertainment Group, and Netflix (who at least had some fun with their presentation, revealing such tidbits as Meg Ryan's undisputed title of Queen of Date Movie Rentals) kicked things off, but the program didn't kick into high gear until DVD producer Van Ling's presentation of Artisan Entertainment's forthcoming T2: The Ultimate Edition DVD (August 29). The audience could barely stifle their oohs and aahs as Ling navigated the intricately designed menus and sifted through some of the extensive content to be found on the single, double-sided disc.
The big draw of the Supersession was a roundtable discussion about the DVD format with directors George Romero, John Waters, John Landis, David Zucker, and Rob Minkoff; and moderator Leonard Maltin. Among the topics of discussion were recording commentaries, the inclusion of deleted scenes, and titles they'd like to see on DVD. Ever the eccentric, Waters named the campy 1968 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton melodrama Boom, unaware that his wish is about to come half true: Universal is set to release the title on tape (but not DVD) for the first time--under the "Universal Treasures" line, no less--on October 31.
Once that was completed, it was back to the showroom for one very long day of product pushing and freebie grabbing. I made return visits at the big ones to check out their celebrity signing activity.
New Line Home Video: It was the day to celebrate the studio's spring theatrical releases, with Love & Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood and co-star Dennis Haysbert starting things off, followed by the Frequency brother duo of co-star Noah Emmerich and writer Toby Emmerich. (Both titles are slated for release in October.) Bringing things home were talent from the studio's showcase title, Final Destination (September 21): stars Kerr Smith, Kristen Cloke, and Chad E. Donella; and creative crew James Wong and Glen Morgan.
Warner Home Video: Jamie Foxx of Any Given Sunday (September 1, in a special director's cut) signed photos and mini-footballs for a sizeable crowd, but not nearly as big as the one that later greeted Romeo Must Die's Jet Li; his was easily the longest line for the entire weekend. Not long after Li completed his round of signing, Romeo T-shirts were given out. (Romeo is now available.)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment: Disney's sole celebrity appearance for the weekend was that of Tara Charendoff, who voices the character of Melody in the Mouse's latest direct-to-video desecra... er, sequel to an animated classic, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (September 19). Melody is the human daughter of mermaid-turned-surface dweller Ariel, who, in a bit of oh-so-inspired plotting, wants to become a mermaid.
After those pit stops, it was off to cover some uncharted territory.
USA Home Entertainment: The former PolyGram's rather spacious spread was filled with fans as it began the day with an all-star lineup of sports greats: footballer Gale Sayers, hockey player Gordie Howe, baseballer Steve Carlton, and hoopster Bill Walton, all appearing to promote USA's expansive line of official pro league videos. USA was perhaps the largest company to literally hand out copies of their upcoming titles, namely the fizzled would-be Oscar contenders A Map of the World and Agnes Browne (both due August 22). Screeners of Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead (September 26) were not given out, a peculiar fact considering that Gordon himself appeared for a (much less hectic) signing a couple of hours after the athletes left the scene.
Studio Home Entertainment: The former Sterling Home Entertainment made a buzz with the appearance of the first couple of direct-to-video schlock, real-life marrieds Casper Van Dien and Catherine Oxenberg, who were pushing their forthcoming thriller The Collectors (October 17). (Just how busy are these two? They appeared in the showroom the previous day pushing another collaboration of theirs, Thrill Seekers, which is being released by York/Maverick Entertainment.) Studio's entry in the Dean Cain sweepstakes, No Alibi (September 26), were given away, as were copies of the recent theatrical release American Virgin (September 5), starring Bob Hoskins and a pre-American Pie and -American Beauty Mena Suvari. While those titles got their proper push, it didn't beat the hype built for the monster movie Komodo, from the writer of (gulp) Anaconda; a full-size replica of the komodo dragon was available for photo opportunities, and DVDs of the film were handed out by reps repeatedly yelling, "Long shelf life!" We shall see when the film hits stores on August 8.
WWF Entertainment: The World Wrestling Federation stirred up some action in their ring set with appearances by announcer Jim Ross, former Andy Kaufman sparring partner Jerry "The King" Lawler, and female wrestling sensation Chyna. Unfortunately, I arrived in Chyna's line just as it was being cut off, thus costing me a spiffy WWF duffle bag.
Entertech Home Entertainment: Making a last-minute appearance to promote his upcoming theatrical release Kids World was star Christopher Lloyd, whose line was also among the longest and slowest the entire weekend--a fact that can be attributed to his cordial chattiness with fans.
Rhino Home Video: If retro and kitsch are your thing, then Rhino's your king. Rhino distributes a few old music and feature titles, but they've made their name by releasing TV relics such as Brady Bunch Variety Hour and The Monkees; recent cult TV programs such as Mystery Science Theater 3000 and VR.5 also come out under Rhino. However, Rhino holds a special place for me for distributing cartoon series from my youth: G.I. Joe, Transformers, and the landmark synergy of animation and bubblegum pop music that is Jem.
Pioneer Entertainment: In addition to distributing popular anime titles such as Gundam Wing and Pokémon, Pioneer also fulfills your DVD karaoke needs. So it was only fitting that the Pioneer booth also included a full-blown sing-along station. Those brave enough to take the stage were given a $100-plus-valued two-disc, 100-song karaoke song collection. Not one to pass up such an expensive freebie, I treated (tortured?) anyone within earshot with a rendition of "Sailing." Surprisingly, this one-time Rent reject did not receive any jeers. But that was likely because no one bothered to listen to me.
While most of the companies who exhibited in the showroom were hawking direct-to-video product, most of their offerings fell squarely on the side of the mainstream. The fun of VSDA is discovering the real oddities, and they hardly get more odd than these two:
Autopsy: Through the Eyes of Death's Detectives/Autopsy: Voices of Death: Drawing many a curious conventioneer was the booth touting this two-tape documentary series on... autopsies. Directed by Student Academy Award winner Michael Kriegsman, these documentaries take an extremely close look at the grisly process; the second tape is an actual complete autopsy caught on tape. Graphic, yes; exploitative, no, claimed the PR reps at the booth. That may be true of the tapes, but hiring a model to lay on a gurney and pretend to be a cadaver for the duration of show floor hours didn't exactly scream out "good taste." The videos are available for purchase at their website.
Extreme Catfighting: Of all the free tapes and discs I picked up at the convention, this has to be my favorite. As the mastermind behind the idea, Mel Potts, put it, Extreme Catfighting is "Fight Club with women." Seeing that the Ultimate Fighting Championship was a hit with male viewers, Potts came up with the idea to take that to the next level and stage unsanctioned, underground, down-and-dirty fighting tournaments with women--but not necessarily trained female fighters. His finger clearly on the pulse of heterosexual men everywhere, Potts fills out his bouts--literally and figuratively--with strippers with no real fight training aside from a crash conditioning course taken in the weeks leading up to a tournament. So the fights showcase the way real women fight: pulling hair, ripping off clothes, et al. My apologies to all feminists, but one has to appreciate the imagination and ingenuity behind an athletic tournament whose "tale of the tape" stat rundowns include cup size. (More info can be found at the official website).
My official Day Two coverage duties closed with a stop down at a room demonstrating the DTS DVD sound system. Watching--and, more importantly, listening to--clips from Jurassic Park and The Eagles: Hell Freezes Over, it quickly became clear that this is perhaps as close the home viewing/listening experience could come to proper theatrical exhibition.
That night came my last party of my Vegas stay, a pre-celebration for the DVD Festival Awards that were handed out the following morning. Held at Planet Hollywood, the bash was thrown by fellow OFCS members Jeff Howard and Dave Neil of The Movie Guys. The affair was nice if quite small. Just how small? The only "luminary" to show up was the awards ceremony's emcee, Pauly Shore, and even he bailed after about 45 minutes.
Due to the press screening of X-Men (and there was no way I was going to miss that), I arrived at the Sands Expo center on the final day as the convention was gradually winding down. I missed the DVD Festival Awards ceremony, which was distinguished with what I heard was an even-more-abysmal-than-usual performance by Pauly Shore. However, I did arrive in time to make some final rounds.
New Line Home Video: New Line kept the celebrities coming right until the final bell. Closing up shop for them were trick (now available) co-star J.P. Pitoc and Next Friday (now available) co-star Lisa Rodriguez; preceding them was Rodriguez's castmate Tiny Lister, who had been scheduled to sign alongside another Next Friday star, Justin Pierce. The reason for Pierce's conspicuous absence was revealed the next day, when news broke that he had hanged himself in his hotel room the morning he was to appear.
Avalanche Home Entertainment: Another unfortunate "miss" due to the X-Men screening was the appearance of actress Mädchen Amick, late of TV's Twin Peaks and the James Spader-starring erotic thriller Dream Lover. Amick was on hand to promote the thriller Psychopath (August 29). Other upcoming releases on Avalanche's slate are the erotic drama Luscious (August 22), starring Kari Wuhrer (who had her own signing on Day One); the comedy Highball (October 3), starring Annabella Sciorra, Eric Stoltz, and Ally Sheedy; and Militia (October 17), an action film starring the omnipresent Dean Cain.
York/Maverick Entertainment: Amick also appears in York/Maverick's political thriller The List (August 29), also starring Ryan O'Neal and Ben Gazzara. I missed the signings the company held in conjunction for their product: as mentioned before, Casper Van Dien and Catherine Oxenberg appeared on Day One to push Thrill Seekers (November); Day Two brought out William Forsythe, Catherine Bell, and Alison Eastwood of the action film The Last Marshal (August 22). Also out on August 22 from York/Maverick is the theatrical release Restaurant, an ensemble drama starring Adrien Brody, Elise Neal, and Jesse L. Martin.
Xenon Entertainment Group: Getting the biggest push at the booth for this company, which specializes in films featuring Black, Asian, and Hispanic talent, was the urban drama Tha Eastsidaz (August 29), starring Snoop Dogg. Their diverse catalog features a number of vintage martial arts titles, documentaries, and blaxploitation films, including a number of selections starring the oft-overlooked '70s urban action star, Rudy Ray Moore.
CAV Distributing Corporation: I have no idea what this company does, and the reason for my ignorance is why I mention it here. The representative at this booth would not say more than a loud, uncalled-for "go away" to me because I was a press member and not a video store owner (a distinction made on my pass). So if any of you have any dealings in home video retail, be wary of this company and the incredibly rude people that are in its employ.
After stopping by a few tables where exhibitors dumped the merchandise they were desperate to unload (among the "goodies": a Barney DVD) and passing by more perky Starpower-ettes, it was time to leave the site of the 2000 VSDA extravaganza and embark on the real adventure: figuring out how to pack all the stuff I picked up into my suitcases.