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Everybody’s gotta start somewhere in Hollywood and direct-to-video films are as good a place as any. As these low-budget, studio financed films are designed specifically for home video distribution, direct-to-video films are almost always second-rate. This delete bin of cinema is not unlike fast food dining, promising disposable entertainment at the price of a DVD rental. You get what you pay for and the people who work on the films garner experience that will hopefully led them bigger and better things. With this in mind, here are 15 major actors and filmmakers who started their career in the cinematic equivalent of Burger King.
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Most cinema goers who were around during the 90s remember Cruel Intentions. The film loosely remade Dangerous Liaisons within a prep-school setting and featured steamy performances from Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar. While the film garnered a cult following, it could not keep the sequel, Cruel Intentions 2, from going straight-to-video. In an innovative (ifconfusing) touch, the sequel was in fact a prequel to Cruel Intentions and featured an up-and-comer by the name Amy Adams playing Sarah Michelle Gellar’s old character.
The title Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Goes To College more or less screams direct-to-video. Though the film would be placed by Ghoulies fans (all two of them) as among the best of the series, it ultimately would go down as the noteworthy first film of Matthew Lillard. He plays the geeky, mostly silent fraternity sidekick Stork. Five years later he would still be playing teenagers, though the niche would lead him to a breakout role in Scream.
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Before he was known as an Academy Award nominated screenwriter for A History of Violence, Josh Olson made his living a script doctor for several direct-to-video action films, including Hitman’s Run (starring Eric Roberts) and Instinct To Kill (starring Mark Dacascos). In 2002, Olson would parlay his contacts in the indie film industry to write and direct the straight-to-video killer bug movie Infested.
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Few moviegoers consider Cyborg among their favorite Jean-Claude Van Damme films, but it was apparently successful enough to warrant a DTV sequel. The film was headline by Elias Koteas, Jack Palance and, in the title role, Angelina Jolie. The part was Jolie’s first major film role and helped establish her as an action heroine nearly a decade before the Tomb Raider movies.
David S. Goyer
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Most recently David S. Goyer has been riding high as the co-writer of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. Yet before he was the screenwriting king of comic book movies, Goyer was a writer for direct-to-video horror studio Full Moon Pictures. During the height of the mini-studio’s success, Goyer wrote the screenplays for both Demonic Toys and Arcade. The former evil toy film has grown into a respectable franchise for Full Moon and garnered a sequel in 2010.
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This one may be cheating a bit. Jeremy Renner had a long series of bit roles in film and television before he did the direct-to-video serial killer film Dahmer in 2002. However, the Dahmer was his first time headlining a cast and with its low-budget pedigree, garners a mention here. Renner’s performance as the titular serial killer would not lead him to overnight stardom as he would return to the dregs of blue-collar bit parts less than a year later. However, his turn managed to attract the atention director Katherin Bigelow, garnering him the lead role in another low-budget indie, The Hurt Locker, six years later. An Academy Award for Best Actor would follow with it.
Former Bond girl Denise Richards has made her share of clunkers, but none have been as catastrophically bad as Tammy and the T-Rex. The film, which was among her first lead roles, is a sex comedy about a murdered teen who gets his mind trapped in the body of a robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex, thus hindering his ability to copulate with the titular Tammy (Richards). The film is every bit as weird and terrible as it sounds and also features a bit part filled by none other than Fast Five star Paul Walker.
With Zombieland, Monsters Inc and the upcoming G.I. Joe: Retaliation under his belt, screenwriter Rhett Reese (pictured right) is one of the hottest scribes in Tinsel Town. Of course, things weren’t always Pixar and big budget zombie movoes. Rheese got his start as the writer of Cruel Intentions 3. Not to be confused with the aforementioned Cruel Intentions 2, the film was a stand-alone sequel seemingly unrelated to the former films in any way aside from the inclusion of prep schools and gratuitous sex scenes.
Though Michael Bay gets all the credit for discovering Transformers star Megan Fox, the actress got her first shot at the acting game from none other than the Olsen twins. Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s Bahama-bound DTV adventure, Holiday in the Sun, carries the distinction of featuring Megan Denise Fox in a bit role as “Briana.” This happened six years before she would battle alongside such distinguished thespians as Shia Labeouf and Optimus Prime in Transformers and two years before Bay would cast her as a bikini wearing extra in Bad Boys II.
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Last year the movie industry was pretty surprised to hear Marvel announce they had chosen writer/director James Gunn to helm their next tent pole movie, Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps they chose the him to direct their anarchic property based on his experiences working for the anarchic low-budget studio Troma? The specialty film label gave Gunn his first shot at writing, directing, and acting with Tromeo and Juliet in 1995. Though the film would be released in a limited run theatrically, Gunn played an instrumental role behind-the-scenes of the company. He created several shorts and promotional content for Troma’s home video releases during the late 90s before moving on to a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter and independent filmmaker.
While Naomi Watts has several bright spots on her resume, I’m sure that “star of a decent Children of the Corn movie” isn’t one she usually brags about. Given the quality of the films in this series, perhaps she should. Though Watts had co-starred in the theatrical bomb Tank Girl a year earlier, Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering ranks as her first real starring role. There isn’t much to differentiate it from the other films in the series besides the fact it wasn’t quite as poorly reviewed as its predecessors. Oh, and did we mention Naomi Watts stars in it? Yeah, there’s that too.
Robert D. Siegel
The Onion Movie was co-ritten by Robert D. Siegel and filmed with the intention of a theatrical release. Unfortunately, a poor test screening led The Onion Movie to be shelved for several years before it got dumped onto home video in 2008. Interestingly enough, this was the same year Robert Siegel’s other screenwriting effort, The Wrestler, would help Mickey Rourke bring home an Academy Award for Best Actor. Though the two films have nothing to do with one another content-wise, I can’t imagine a “From the writer of The Wrestler” blurb hurting The Onion Movie‘s chances on home video.
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American Pie sexpot Shannon Elizabeth got her start in the 1997 Christmas fable Jack Frost. No, not the Michael Keaton family vehicle of the same name, but the one about the killer mutant snow man. The film has become infamous for a scene in which Elizabeth is assaulted by the snowman while taking a shower. Though the actress would become known for her nude scenes in the American Pie movies, we’re almost positive she regrets shedding her clothes to be murdered onscreen by a killer mutant snowman. That’s no way for anyone to start a career.
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Before Brad Pitt could actually act he was starring as the dumb jock in the direct-to-video slasher Cutting Class. The film was dumped onto home video as the slasher trend drew its final breath in 1989. The slasher would become notable for Pitt fans as the project led him to meet his first fiance, Cutting Class co-star Jill Schoelen.
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While child star Leonardo DiCaprio garnered substantial television experience on shows like Parenthood and Growing Pains, he got his first taste of feature films with 1991’s Critters 3. The direct-to-video sequel had DiCaprio playing Josh, a feisty youngster who goes up against the titular porcupine creatures inside his apartment complex. As an adult, DiCaprio would acknowledge the part was threadbare in its writing. That would not stop New Line Cinema from plastering DiCaprio’s face on the box for their DVD reissue over a decade later.