Mining Gold Out of Cast-Off Video

Mar 1, 2004  •  Post A Comment

“Milk it for every last drop” is probably too mild a phrase to describe how distributor Bill Schwartz approaches a television property.
The CEO of Schwartz & Co. specializes in rooting out low-value documentary material-such as concerts by stand-up comedians and real-life disaster footage-and repackaging it to tap unexpected ancillary revenue streams. “My responsibility to the partners is to make the most money as I possibly can,” Mr. Schwartz said.
The result has been dozens of documentaries and specials-including a new pilot currently being tested for Comedy Central that’s based on 1,000 hours of classic wrestling footage that Mr. Schwartz procured.
Mr. Schwartz’s success in mining the bits of the television business that have fallen through the cracks is one example of how the small guy can still make a big buck in the highly consolidating TV landscape.
Many of the Mr. Schwartz’s produced titles-such as “Terror on the Titanic,” “Pearl Harbor Attacked” and “Armageddon: Biblical Prophecy”-were timed to coincide with the release of upcoming big-budget movies. Others, such as “Bob Hope’s Funniest Moments” and “Frank Sinatra & the Fabulous Rat Pack,” demonstrate timing of a less tasteful nature. The Bob Hope video, for instance, was poised to coincide with “[Hope’s] casket.”
In either case, Mr. Schwartz said, cable channels appreciate low-cost programming that allows them to ride popular sentiment or the marketing coattails of major studios.
“I love stuff that is rare and not overly exploited,” he said. “Stuff for the masses, not the classes.”
Mr. Schwartz’s biggest coup to date came from “slicing and dicing” three concerts by the late comedian Sam Kinison.
“[Mr. Schwartz] approached me, called me, several times about [distributing the concerts],” said Bill Kinison, Sam’s brother and owner of the properties. “I had thought we had exhausted all the marketing on Sam.”
Not quite. Mr. Schwartz proceeded to license the concerts under various titles to pay-per-view; sold them on VHS and DVD via direct advertising; offered them as retail home video; lifted the audio tracks for concert CDs; repackaged them as a 90-minute special for the Playboy Channel; recently licensed one to Spike TV; and licensed a 10-second audio clip for a Nissan ad.
The total revenue on the Sam Kinison specials was “north of $750,000,” Mr. Schwartz said.
“He still never ceases to amaze me with the deals he comes up with,” Mr. Kinison said.
“We’re slicing and dicing,” Mr. Schwartz said.
Mr. Schwartz started his career working as a video store clerk. He stumbled onto the rights to the film “War and Peace”-the Russian version-and repackaged and resold it to video store outlets. He worked for distribution company United American Video before creating his own company.
One of Mr. Schwartz’s sidelines is producing animated films to dovetail with Disney hits.
Disney had “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”; Mr. Schwartz had “The Secret of the Hunchback.” Disney had “Anastasia”; Mr. Schwartz had “The Secret of Anastasia.”
Next up is a documentary on Howard Hughes that Mr. Schwartz is producing to coincide with the upcoming film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the reclusive billionaire. Don’t be surprised if Mr. Schwartz’s version ends up on late-night cable.
And in direct-marketing ads.
And in video stores.
“Quite frankly, in this business, I have to be absolutely relentless,” he said.