Los Angeles Times | Tuesday, July 29, 2003

It's 'Pie' taken to the nth degree

To coax more revenue from DVDs, Universal is packaging a tell-all documentary with re-releases of the first two movies. The third hits theaters Friday.


How many ways can you slice the "American Pie" franchise? Let us count the pieces.

A salty behind-the-scenes documentary titled "Beneath the Crust, Volume One" is packaged with today's re-release of "American Pie" on DVD. "Beneath the Crust, Volume Two," featuring deleted scenes, comes with the newly repackaged "American Pie 2" DVD, also out today. Moviegoers who purchase either DVD can send for free tickets to see "American Wedding," the third installment in the trilogy, when it opens Friday.

The kicker: "American Wedding" comes out on DVD in December with a 3 1/2-hour "Beneath the Crust" retrospective, incorporating volumes one and two and covering everything anyone could possibly want to know about the making of the three movies.

Aimed squarely at fans who can't get enough of the lewd lore surrounding Jim (Jason Biggs), Stifler (Seann William Scott), Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) and most of the rest of the "American Pie" gang (Chris Klein, Mena Suvari, Tara Reid and Natasha Lyonne are absent this time), "Beneath the Crust" gave filmmakers a chance to answer frequently asked questions, share stories, show clips and talk dirty if they feel like it. As for Universal Studios, adding uncensored "Crust" extras to "Pie 1" and "Pie 2" discs seemed like a smart way to coax additional revenue from the exploding DVD market.

Particularly in the last 18 months, the format has gone from being an after-market ancillary for the feature film business to becoming a powerful entertainment medium on its own.

In fact, in the first half of 2003, DVD sales outpaced studios' theatrical income $4.8 billion to $4.4 billion.

As for the free ticket offer, Chris Moore, who produced the "American" trilogy, said he wanted to make sure the "Pie" fan base didn't feel exploited by an overzealous marketing assault. "We went to Universal and said, 'Is there a way we can make it feel like we're not just milking the audience for all the money we can get?' because that just seems a little cheesy to us. Let's figure out a way where, if you go buy the first one or the second one, we'll let you see the third one for free. That's cool!"

Using a new movie to promote old titles and vice versa made sense to Ken Graffeo, executive vice president of marketing for Universal Studios Home Video. "We partnered with the theatrical [division] and looked at the franchise as an overall studio," he said. "We wanted to [make an event out of] the DVD releases. The filmmakers themselves want to connect with their fans at the same time that 'American Wedding' is coming out, so the TV spots promoting 'American Wedding,' the motion picture, will also say, 'Buy "Beneath the Crust" to get these scenes and you can also get a free movie ticket.' All that excitement you get when a film comes out in the theater, we try to re-create [for the DVDs] so that people want to buy 'em."

The "American Wedding" cross-promotion only underscores how important DVDs have become to studios' bottom lines. Universal's "8 Mile" DVD, for example, raked in more than $40 million on its first day of release (the film itself grossed $51 million during its first weekend in theaters). And, Graffeo said, "The Fast and the Furious" sold 7 million units at about $20 a pop, nearly equaling the movie's domestic theatrical gross of $144 million.

For franchise properties in particular, studios are beginning to time DVD releases to capitalize on theatrically released sequels. Artisan tapped into "Terminator 3" buzz earlier this month by re-releasing an "Extreme DVD" of "Terminator 2." And "The Matrix: Reloaded" DVD will hit stores just three weeks before the final chapter, "Matrix: Revolution," opens in theaters.

Marketing ingenuity aside, "Beneath the Crust" stands out for taking an approach rarely seen in the brief history of DVD featurettes: Talent tells the unspun truth.

Adam Herz, who scripted all three movies, explained, "I wasn't thrilled with the previous 'American Pie' editions. When I knew we were doing a third movie, one of the first things that jumped into my head was, 'OK, let's make sure the DVD is done right.' It's become a habit in the DVD industry to just show you B-roll fluff, where everyone they interview is going 'I loved making the movie. Everything was great!' We set out to do something that was the antitheses of that."

For "American Pie 2," that meant being brutally frank about two major subplots dumped just weeks before the film's release. In test screenings, Moore said women "hated" an infidelity story line involving Klein and Suvari, and the talent agreed. In one of his "Crust" appearances, Klein acknowledged that "I was moping around the whole movie," while Herz confessed on camera, "I realized [the story line] might be good for 'Dawson's Creek,' but there was nothing funny about it at all. I don't know why I did it."

Filmmakers also were blunt about why they dropped the back story featuring obnoxious playboy Stifler's even more onerous father. As "Pie 2" director J.B. Long delicately put it during a "Crust, Volume 2" interview, "Nobody gives a [hoot] about why Stifler is the way he is."

Some Universal executives were taken aback when they saw the footage, Herz said. "The studio was genuinely conflicted because they'd never seen filmmakers say they didn't 110% love everything they did. We said, 'You mean you've never seen anybody be honest about their movie?' So we just laid it out: Here's what we did, here's why it didn't work, here's what did work, here's what we wish we could have fixed, here's what we did fix. It's just the truth, and I always think the truth is the most interesting thing."

For Moore, who also produces HBO's "Project Greenlight" warts-and-all documentary series about filmmaking, "The idea was for us to say to the fans, 'Look, not only did we have a good time but we also made mistakes.' That's part of why movie making is interesting, and that's why people like DVDs with extra stuff on it. And that's why Jason and Adam and the directors are hosting it themselves. We wanted to shoot the DVD while we were making the movie so we'd have everybody from the other two movies being nostalgic."

Of course, "American Pie"-style nostalgia has a flavor all its own. Harkening back to 1999, "Crust, Volume 1" features Eddie Kay Thomas wistfully recalling his character's bout of diarrhea, which he describes as an homage to "Dumb and Dumber." Thomas Ian Nicholas reminisces about his "tongue tornado" sequence with Tara Reid. Biggs revisits the kitchen in the Long Beach house where the famous pie fornication scene took place, dryly offering audio commentary on the alternate take that wound up on the cutting room floor.

Biggs said, "The whole time we were filming 'American Wedding,' we had the DVD in mind as much as the actual theatrical release of 'American Wedding.' The [DVD] crew was always around with their video cameras, so we became comfortable with these guys and let our guard down. Consequently there was quite a bit of cursing. Especially on these three films, everyone takes more liberties than you would on other sets, just because of the subject matter."

"Crust" may turn out to be a multimillion-dollar marketing idea, but for Biggs, taking part in the DVD gave him a chance to speak to the "Pie" people who bought tickets and made him a star. "Fans are always asking us about what was going on behind the scenes. Doing 'Beneath the Crust' was really about taking this opportunity, while we were all together again on the set, to tell our stories from the first two [movies], and then let the cameras follow us around while we make 'American Wedding,' because you want to get some cool [stuff] from this one too. That was sort of the take on it."

Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar