Jarhead arrived in theaters in November 2005 as a singular artistic venture. Based on a New York Times best-selling memoir written by Anthony Swofford, the film sidestepped conventional war movie tropes to portray the Gulf War as inactive and infuriating. Pedigree sold the anti-action cinema: Academy Award–winning director Sam Mendes wrangled an A-list cast, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Jamie Foxx, and below-the-line assets like esteemed cinematographer Roger Deakins and legendary Apocalypse Now editor Walter Murch. A pulsating trailer featuring Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” solidified Jarhead as Universal Pictures’ “Oscar bait.” But Mendes’s film couldn’t build momentum. With a budget of nearly $72 million, Jarhead recouped $62 million at home and $34 million overseas. It shuffled into movie history without a single Golden Globe, let alone an Oscar.
Nine years later, Jarhead 2: Field of Fire is a thing.
Gone are Mendes, Gyllenhaal, Deakins’s shadowy photography, and any trace of Swofford’s source material. Jarhead 2 is a follow-up in name only, closer to men-on-a-mission action movies of the ’50s and ’60s than a continuation of the original character portrait. From director Don Michael Paul (Lake Placid: The Final Chapter, Who’s Your Caddy?), the film stars One Life to Live’s Josh Kelly as Corporal Chris Merrimette, leader of a Marine unit tasked with resupplying an outpost located in Taliban territory. A downed Navy SEAL diverts the mission when he requests assistance from Merrimette in escorting a Malala Yousafzai proxy to safety. Gunfire, missile launcher explosions, and good ol’ fashioned camaraderie ensue.
There are blunt and nuanced answers to the inevitable “Why!?” The obvious: money. Less obvious: A potential to serve audiences hungry for stories with budget-sensible vehicles. That’s Glenn Ross’s prerogative. As general manager and executive vice-president of Universal 1440 Entertainment, the production arm of Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Ross hunts for available brands to mine. It’s not unlike a typical movie studio, though Ross doesn’t have the time to work like the theatrical side. He works quickly and aggressively. He caters to fans and creates results. Judging from Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s history, he’s doing something right.
The officially sanctioned Jarhead sequel joins a swarm of thought-dead brands revived through cunning straight-to-DVD strategy. Universal Home Entertainment, which is releasing Jarhead 2: Field of Fire on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD platforms, has “non-theatrical” (“direct-to-DVD” being the archaic term) production down to a science. The company releases five to seven titles a year. The annual slates are eclectic: In the past four years, Universal has released The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption, Saige Paints the Sky, Death Race 3: Inferno, Honey 2, Blue Crush 2, Curse of Chucky (the franchise’s sixth installment), and The Little Rascals Save the Day (a quasi-continuation of the studio’s 1994 remake). Competitive studios keep their own plates spinning, with Fox Home Entertainment (Marley & Me: The Puppy Years, Tooth Fairy 2, Flicka: Country Pride, Wrong Turn 5 & 6, and Joy Ride 3), Paramount Famous Productions (Mean Girls 2), and Warner Premiere (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective Jr.; House Party: Tonight’s the Night; and DC Comics’ animated output) producing new titles for streaming platforms and Redbox kiosks.
Ross looks at Jarhead 2 and sees an entirely new face to the non-theatrical business. When he joined 1440 Entertainment in 2005, direct-to-video was “a low-budget, exploitative business.” Between endless Land Before Time entries (the franchise made it to XIII: The Wisdom of Friends), Universal Home Entertainment concentrated on genre sequels. Sam Raimi’s Darkman begat The Return of Durant; Tremors earned Tremors 2: Aftershocks; and The Skulls, The Hitcher, and Timecop all earned Part 2s. Ross says that only a few short years ago, the rental market was still vibrant enough to warrant $800,000 to $900,000 movies designed to flood Blockbuster shelves. “If you put it on the shelf and it was the right genre, it would rent. But as the business shifted away from rental to sell-through, where people purchased things, the shelf space for these exploitative movies evaporated. That’s when the business started to change.” A change without diminishment: A January 2014 report from Digital Entertainment Group assessed that consumer spending rose to $18.2 billion in 2013, with 72 million U.S. homes containing a Blu-ray player, with electronic sell-through — digital purchases — comprising $1 billion.
Ross altered Universal’s home video philosophy with a simple question: Why can’t non-theatrical movies be good? As the theatrical business went broader, gunning for four-quadrant appeal with expensive bombast, direct-to-video needed a creative rejiggering that could make titles pop in the advent of iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, and non-traditional rental means. Browsing psychology has evolved, and audiences are given fewer opportunities to judge a movie by its cover art. It was the perfect excuse to try harder. In Ross’s mind, “direct-to-DVD” need not be a pejorative.
Non-theatrical sequels are still a brand-first, story-second game. 1440 Entertainment selects projects based on their potential to hit big. Why make a sequel to a movie like Jarhead? It’s still playing big where it matters. The numbers make sense. The EVP’s team looks at DVD rentals, iTunes downloads, streaming numbers, TV distribution, and international markets. When asked of his intel-gathering methods, Ross is transparent: “I got Google.” Online chatter is a vital metric, too. Ross could produce a wartime movie that doesn’t infringe on the legacy of Jarhead, but slapping it with a stagnant IP gives it automatic legs. “It does some marketing for you. You come to it with a built-in consumer. You go on Facebook and people are constantly having dialogue about it,” Ross says.
In a way, Universal ensures its own conversation. The Jarhead Facebook page, established six years after Mendes’s film hit theaters, regularly updates with military tributes and “Throwback Thursday” nostalgia. Often, the mysterious social media soldier who runs the page combines the two. A recent post pairs a still of Jake Gyllenhaal marching through burning oil fields with a quote from the Marine Corps’ “Rifleman’s Creed”: “This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for fighting and this is for fun.” Of the 312,701 who follow the Jarhead page, 3,513 people “liked” the post. The rules of social engagement have changed.
With the confidence of an abled brand, Ross sets off to produce the non-theatrical sequel. The timeline is hasty: It takes his team about two years to go from brand brainstorm to finished feature. The budgets are tight (multiple sources pin Scorpion King 3 between $5 to $6 million, though like DVD/TV/streaming profits, it’s murky territory — just the way the studio likes it), but Ross says they’re interested in spending the amount of money that will satisfy fans. Scorpion King needs swords-and-sandal fight sequences and the training sessions required to pull it off; Death Race builds new cars because that’s why people watch the movies in the first place; Bring It On — which Ross nurtured into a lucrative DTD franchise and eventually a Broadway musical — requires its own training camp. Shooting in South Africa, Bulgaria, Romania, or Canada helps to minimize the expenses.
Talent matters, too. In an era in which “mockbusters” game the system and critics consume enough direct-to-video action to make a case for the medium’s auteurs, Ross knows how a savvy filmmaker or proficient actor can make or break a franchise’s longevity. His process for finding talent is simple: He watches movies, waits for action to blow him away, then brings in the filmmakers for meetings. He’s looking for vision that maintains the integrity of the brand. That can mean involving the original filmmakers or not. After his Death Race remake underperformed theatrically, schlockmeister Paul W.S. Anderson loaned his services by writing script treatments, watching daily footage, and overseeing the edit of Death Race 2 and 3.
Ross isn’t sure if Sam Mendes got a call about Jarhead 2. That’s not the point. “We just wanted to make a good military action film that had some heart and was compelling in some way,” Ross says. “Not just a lot of action and killing and blood-splattering everywhere. It was the core integrity of that brand.” He isn’t blowing smoke: Jarhead 2 is as much about Marine banter, down-to-earth conversation, and morality plays (to save the Afghan girl or to execute the mission?) as it is visceral, stylized firefights. The studio doesn’t have the money to be Lone Survivor. That’s not a bad thing when you have guys like Cole Hauser. Recruiting the Olympus Has Fallen actor for Jarhead 2 works on a number of levels: He has an action background, he’s recognizable, and he makes the rounds with the USO (including a tour conducted over this past Fourth of July).
Every movie produced by 1440 Entertainment starts as a direct-to-video project, and when they arrive in America, that’s how it ends. Not so for global territories, where sequels have stronger shelf lives. Death Race 3 played theatrically in the Netherlands. Honey 2 made $8.7 million during a theatrical run across multiple global territories. The Scorpion King sequels continue to pop on Twitter as they regularly resurface on Turkish and Greek television. They may not see the same love in America, but Ross is content with his franchises becoming a staple of daytime programming. “I’m someone who keeps the TV on all day. I usually don’t watch it. It keeps me company. Our offices are quiet and I like the noise. Just two weeks ago, AMC was playing all the Scorpion King movies. They’re just incredibly popular.”
Facebook reactions to Jarhead 2: Field of Fire burn with more vitriol than the boiling fandom surrounding Death Race and Scorpion King. Fans of the original — the middle sliver of the pro-military/pop-culture junkie Venn diagram — come down hard on the assumed cash-in. Reacting to the trailer, one page fan sounds off: “I mean just look at their rifles, two of them have what look to almost be backwards EO Techs while the third has scope from like the 60s lol. I’ll stick to the original Jarhead, which is a great movie.” Another chastises the film’s wardrobe: “Since when do we wear tan shirts under our desert cammies?” Jarhead 2 is a risk, grafting realistic filmmaking onto dirt-cheap fantasy, but one Ross can’t sweat. His exploitation stops at “Jarhead.” His theatrical counterparts might not be able to boil down drama, tell small stories, and pepper talky movies with spurts of action, but he can. If anyone sees Jarhead 2 — and he hopes they do, because Universal 1440 Entertainment projects are all conceived as multi-picture franchises — they’ll find a solid war movie.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve come up with a film and people look at us and go ‘What? If you can’t have XYZ actor, he was really what the movie was all about.’ We’ve proven that as long as you maintain the integrity of the brand, you have flexibility.” Ross refuses to welcome anyone to the suck.
Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work can be seen on Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and Time Out.