Simply put, this is the practice of skipping theaters/television and just going straight to home video as the first release. This is generally not a good sign in terms of quality (especially if it was originally going to be released theatrically, but was consigned to video), the term "direct-to-video" or "straight-to-video" often gets used as slang for "cheaply made, rushed, low quality", and in extreme cases, "complete bucket of crap."
In the United States, while there have been plenty of direct-to-video films and such since the advent of home video, they were usually things that were considered financially unsound to release in theaters, like instructional videos, specialized documentaries, films with controversial or niche subject matter (including many foreign films), or pornography. The practice of creating and releasing regular fiction specifically for video didn't really take off until 1994 with Disney's Return of Jafar and Universal Studios' The Land Before Time II, neither of which was intended to hit theaters at any point in its production. Other studios started following suit, hardly limited to child-oriented animation. In particular, independent studios and filmmakers quickly picked up on this distribution model, due to its lower distribution costs and reduced censorship (video stores will often stock unrated films that theaters won't touch).
Internationally, many films that had a theatrical release may be released Direct to Video in other countries. This may be due to several factors.
There is a distinct business model that drives the direct-to-video industry, particularly when it involves lower-quality films. One might think that churning out mediocre-to-bad movies on purpose would be a dumb idea, until one looks at the sales and rental figures. A cheap 70- to 90-minute film can be produced for as little as a few thousand dollars if you hire obscure actors, crew and writers (often non-Unions in Hollywood, and barely getting minimum wage), everything gets shot around the studio, and nothing is required that can't be obtained from the studio's stock wardrobe and props. The studio then usually makes about $3–5 million off this, most of it from sales to rental chains. It floods the market with tripe into which nobody put any true effort, but it still makes money in the long run. It's the modern equivalent of the B-Movie; in fact, many of these would be B movies if double features were still a regular thing. Some direct-to-video flicks will try to make lemonade of their lemons by claiming that their movie is "too intense", "too scary", "too well-written" or "too lavishly budgeted" for theaters, usually the viewers don't fall for it.
Sometimes, things that were originally intended to be Direct to Video end up getting retrofitted to show on television or in theaters. Usually, only some minimal editing is done to make it fit for theaters, but there have been cases where the project was intervened midway and beefed up to make it quite a bit better. An example of the former is Doug's First Movie, which was put into theaters after the success of The Rugrats Movie. A famous example of the latter is Toy Story 2, on which Pixar expanded tremendously for its theatrical release, along with another Disney film, Recess: School's Out. More recently, Honey 2 - intended as a Direct to Video movie (which is still the case in North America) got a European theatrical release first... and no, Jessica Alba did not return.
In Japan, OVAs follow the same model of distribution, but have the opposite expectations in terms of their quality. With larger budgets and without Executive Meddling or the strict requirements of the Media Watchdogs, OVAs are expected to be significantly better than television-based anime. Live-action direct-to-video, known as "V-cinema" overseas (although this is technically a trademark of Toei Company), also has a much better reputation in Japan. This is due mainly to the number of established filmmakers who use it for their more "experimental" or unusual work, enjoying the greater creative freedom and lack of censorship.
In short, while "direct-to-video" means "too bad for theaters" in the West, OVA means "too good for a TV series" in the East.
Now that video streaming services are taking the place of home video releases, a similar phenomenon is taking place there. As the first Netflix Original series were incredibly good, but its Original Netflix Movies tend to be of mediocre quality, streaming service-exclusive series tend to be qualified as "too good for mainstream TV and cable but too quirky for even HBO", but movies that go direct to those services are seen the same way as Direct-to-DVD films were (a perception that not even cases like Roma and The Irishman, who had brief runs in streaming services before premiering in theaters and getting critical acclaim, has completely shakin off).
- The American releases of the Pokémon movies, beginning with the sixth one.
- Legend of the Galactic Heroes, being 110 episode-long (i.e, longer than most TV series ) was - to many viewers' surprise - an OVA released straight-to-Laserdisc. The result is a tight script with virtually no Plot Hole nor Filler. Limited animation budget somehow effectively avoided Stock Footage usage throughout long-winded space battles... almost (Stock Footage was used occasionally, but the interval between each usage can easily be wide up to tens of episodes that you won't notice it once it's in effect).
- The Animatrix is probably the second best thing that ever happened to The Matrix franchise (with the sequels rarely on fans' favorite list, the video game adaptations fall victim to the typical syndrome and the graphic novels largely forgetable). Most of its success can be credited to bold exploration into the Matrix mythos, a return to the cyberpunk theme (that was never revisited by the sequels) and the excel in both hand-drawn and CGI animation.
- There have recently been a series of Marvel Comics direct-to-video animated adaptation such as Ultimate Avengers and Hulk Vs., which in practice are more like OVAs: both better animated and less-censored than their television counterparts.
- DC Comics has a similar line of such productions, including Superman: Doomsday (adapted from The Death of Superman) and Wonder Woman.
- The Beano Video and it's sequel were both Direct to video. These were a number of animated shorts featuring characters from The Beano.
- Most of National Lampoon's later films have been released direct-to-video. Not surprisingly, this coincides with the steep fall in quality that their films have taken.
- Slumdog Millionaire was almost released this way until Fox Searchlight signed on as distributor.
- Controversial Japanese director Takashi Miike loves using direct-to-video V-cinema for many of his more unusual movies, because of the creative freedom this provides him. Miike is often touted as part of the reason for V-cinema's good reputation overseas.
- All of the Puppet Master franchise was released straight to video. This was because producer Charles Band thought he would make more money going this route instead of taking it to theaters. In fact, most of Full Moon Entertainment's works are direct-to-video.
- Theodore Rex was intended to be a theatrical release, but after some complications, including a few failed test screenings, it was released straight to video. Having a budget of $33.5 million, it was the most expensive direct-to-video release of its time.
- Most mockbusters use the DTV market in order to dupe unsuspecting customers.
- All of Ernest P. Worrell's films after Ernest Rides Again.
- The live-action Casper film produced several. They could hardly even really be called "sequels" seeing how they disregarded the continuity of the original movie so completely that the presence of Casper and his uncles was literally the only similarity to the feature film. They haunted a different house in a different town and all movie-based characters were dropped, all without explanation. And, of course, there was also the expected downgrade in the quality of the CGI. Incidentally, the Casper "sequels" gave a very young Hilary Duff her first acting role as Wendy in Casper Meets Wendy.
- All Nollywood movies are like this.
- The Universal Soldier franchise is an interesting case of this. A pair of DTV films (Brothers In Arms and Unfinished Business) were released in 1998 sans any of the original cast members, and focused on lead character Luc Deveraux's attempts to stop the UniSol program from smuggling diamonds while helping reporter Veronica Roberts clear her name after the events of the original film. The DTV sequels were subsequently retconned by 1998's theatrical Universal Soldier: The Return. That film, in turn, was retconned by 2010's DTV Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which disregards everything except the original.
- In The Electric Mist, an acclaimed crime drama with Tommy Lee Jones and John Goodman and directed by Bertrand Tavernier that had the misfortune of going straight-to-DVD after failing to find a distributor. It did manage a brief theatrical run though after the film rented well.
- You would think that a movie starring Michael Jackson put out in 1988 would have no trouble getting a theatrical release - and you would be right... except that Moonwalker wound up going straight to video in the US after Jackson's then-manager Frank DiLeo asked for an exorbitant share of the box office takings.
- An interesting case is the 2006 thriller The Contract, which starred John Cusack as a school coach who unwittingly ends up having to escort an assassin (played by Morgan Freeman, no less) during a camping trip and avoid a group of the assassin's cohorts while he tries to bring him back to police custody. Despite having several major film and television stars attached to the project, the production (which cost $25 million) was shut down after 50 days by Millennium Films, leaving the director to finish the project with money out of his own pocket. The resulting film was unceremoniously dumped on DVD stateside after a limited theatrical showing - in France.
- Millennium Films also produced the Morgan Freeman/Antonio Bandaras heist film The Code (a.k.a. Thick As Thieves), which revolved around a veteran thief recruiting a younger crook to help him pull off a final job to pay off the Russian mob. Despite attracting some top-tier talent - Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) directed and Tom Hardy co-starred - the film was also dumped on DVD without a theatrical release (it was however the top-renting movie the week it was released on DVD, giving sort of a happy ending for the film).
- Another film starring Morgan Freeman, The Maiden Heist, was released straight to DVD after the distributor Yari Film Group went bankrupt. The film co-stars Willam H Macy and Christopher Walken, both also big names.
- The first film version of The Punisher was planned for a US theatrical release by its makers New World Pictures, but the new owners decided to focus more on television and elected to sit on this, Warlock and Meet The Applegates (although all three did open as planned outside the US through other distributors). The other two did get American theatrical release eventually, but The Punisher spent two years on the shelf before going to video.
- The pioneer of this for spin-offs of TV series was probably the Babylon 5 spin-off The Lost Tales, which was intended to be the first of a series of DVDs until J. Michael Straczynski decided that he couldn't tolerate the artistic limitations created by the low budget (which many cynical people translated as "not even enough completist fans bought it for it to make any money").
- Stargate SG-1 has had two very good direct-to-video sequel movies so far, Stargate: The Ark of Truth and Stargate: Continuum, plans for a third and a Stargate Atlantis film is probably in Development Hell.
- The annual Super Sentai team-up films that started with Ohranger vs. Kakuranger were originally straight-to-video releases until Go-onger vs. Gekiranger, in which they started getting theatrical premieres instead.
- Gogo-V had a tie-in video titled Clash! The New Super Warrior (aka Gogo-V vs. Zeek), which focused on a new hero created just for the movie in order to make up for the lack of an actual Sixth Ranger in the series itself.
- Samurai Sentai Shinkenger and Tensou Sentai Goseiger both had "Come Back!" specials that were released on home video after their respective finales were aired.
- Shin Kamen Rider Prologue was a direct to video movie.
- Also, in the Heisei era, there are Hyper Battle Videos, which act as clip shows for the respective show and usually show off something that will be exclusive to the video (for example: A boombox that makes everyone dance, a super mode for one of the riders, and a form that combines two forms into one.)
- Many BBC panel games in The Nineties made special episodes only released on VHS, including Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. The "will never be seen on TV" advertising was sometimes mocked by the later examples with jokes along the lines of "...except when you watch it by putting the tape into the VCR".
- In a rare example of a decent DTV, the Bionicle films.
- The first three, anyway...
- In the run of Peanuts animated specials:
- It's Spring Training, Charlie Brown (1996, made in 1992 for TV but unaired until after the video release)
- It Was My Best Birthday Ever, Charlie Brown (1997)
- It's the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown (2000)
- Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (2011)
- The majority of video game franchises from the 1980s and 1990s originally began as arcade games and are nowadays released directly to consoles. Even during the "Golden Age" of the arcades (the 80s and 90s), some of these franchises already had a few made-for-console sequels.
- Homestar Runner parodies this and Mockbusters in the SBEmail unlicensed. One of the DVD examples is pictured above on this page.
- Most of the Open Season franchise.
- Starting in 1994 with The Return of Jafar, Disney released direct-to-video sequels, prequels, and interquels to a significant portion of the Disney Animated Canon, animated by the company's various television animation units. At first they were follow-ups to The Renaissance Age of Animation titles, but they gradually shifted back to films from the Golden and Dark ages. There were also a few titles based on Classic Disney Shorts characters and Winnie-the-Pooh, while at least one film (Atlantis: Milo's Return) was a Compilation Movie consisting of the completed episodes of an aborted TV spinoff. In The New Tens, Disney's only efforts in this vein are the Tinkerbell CGI films.
- Pixar is significant for averting this. Disney asked Pixar to produce a DTV sequel to Toy Story, which was turned over to a secondary production crew. Disney was so impressed with the work they were doing that they wanted to expand the runtime from the projected 60 minutes so it could be theatrically released, but John Lasseter didn't like the direction it was taking, and so had the script entirely rewritten and put the entire crew from the first film on the project in order to finish it within the 9 months left on their deadline.
- The Land Before Time series, with 12 sequels that all went straight-to-video.
- Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story and the four Futurama direct-to-DVD movies were made with intent of ultimately cutting the episodes up for airing on TV as three-parters and four-parters respectively. Though in the case of Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, the movie is considered the definitive cut and as such, the TV edit "episodes" are omitted from DVD releases. The DVD also has about 20 minutes of bonus footage (involving the "premiere" of the movie in theaters and a fourth-wall breaking after party where the characters discuss the real-life cancellation of the series) that was not shown on TV. The four Futurama movies sold so well and got such a positive reaction from fans that they continued the series.
- The third and fourth An American Tail movies, which screwed with the canon by putting Fievel back in New York, making Fievel Goes West All Just a Dream, and omitting characters from the first movie.
- The travesty that is The Secret of NIMH II.
- Humorously, in Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Summer Vacation, the credits claim it went straight to video because "it's that darn good" (which is probably more true than they're joking, since the movie is basically an OVA, as it was done by TMS in Japan).
- Video Brinquedo does this a lot, as does Spark Plug Entertainment.
- Animaniacs Alternate Universe film, Wakkos Wish.
- A few Phineas and Ferb episodes were released on DVD before airing on TV.
- "One Good Scare Ought to Do It!" made its US debut on the DVD The Fast and the Phineas, over two months before its US TV premiere on Disney Channel.
- "Unfair Science Fair" and "Unfair Science Fair Redux" (Another Story) made their US debut on the DVD The Daze of Summer, around a week before their US TV premieres on Disney XD.
- "The Doof Side of the Moon" made its US debut on the DVD A Very Perry Christmas, three days before its US TV premiere on Disney Channel.
- Recess: Taking the Fith Grade and Recess: All Growed Down were both DTV movies, consisting of unnaired episodes and linking material.
- All of the Tom and Jerry films except for the first one.
- Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a borderline case. Intended as DTV, it received a short theatrical run with no alterations.
- DC now has a whole series of direct-to-DVD animated films, from Warner Premier.
- Several episodes of Rugrats were originally released on VHS before premiering on television.
- The Powerpuff Girls Movie, while released in the U.S theatrical (and sadly bombing due to lousy marketing from Warner Bros) was released in foreign markets straight to DVD. Subsequently many of Cartoon Network Made for TV movies were also released this way as well.
- The financial failure of The Rescuers Down Under was what caused Disney to decide to do this with their sequels. Ironically history repeated itself when in the mid 2000s they tried again with sequels for Peter Pan and The Jungle Book. Once again the failure of those films resumed their straight to DVD methods.
- The Powerpuff Girls movie for example, after its flop in the U.S., was converted to direct to video for the European market (although it did get a British cinema release).
- It should be noted that Amblin, ILM and Universal were not involved with the sequels, though Universal and Amblin did produce the better-received animated series.