Zombie Virus On Mulberry Street was a nifty low-budget horror that did well on DVD in the UK – even though it had no zombies in it.
Tales of renaming films to give them a more up-to-date or commercial angle are legion in the home entertainment business, dating back to the early days of the VHS and Betamax gold rush.
Similarly, stories of sleeves being created and dreamed up to maximise a film’s commercial prospects are equally commonplace and also stretch back to the early days of the industry, although you could argue that creating artwork that deliberately mis-sells or misrepresents a film to boost its box office dates back as far as the industry itself.
But in the modern, post-DVD and post-DTV – direct to video – world, gossip and rumours are rife about the journeys a film will go on, in terms of being renamed and certain angles played up in order to sell it. And perhaps none are as much discussed as that of Mulberry Street.
Or, to give it its UK title, Zombie Virus On Mulberry Street.
Gossip began swirling around the UK home entertainment industry at some stage in 2009 after the film was released by Momentum Pictures. “Have you seen Zombie Virus On Mulberry Street?” the rumour mill was saying. “It’s not about zombies. And it’s got a bunch of buyers on the sleeve!”
Momentum, it appeared, had pulled the masterstroke of getting assorted video buyers at major retailers to agree to appear on the key artwork on the cover. No matter what the quality of the film was, getting people whose job it was to decide which films ended up on the shelves of supermarkets and other stores gave it more than a fighting chance of getting racked in those stores and boosted its chances ahead of any one of the other numerous DTV titles that were fighting over space on the shelves.
But what really happened to Mulberry Street?
To understand, you’ve got to go back to the VHS era and the rush to get tapes into rental stores in their heyday as the UK showed an insatiable desire to watch films – any old films – via the clunky big box below the telly.
Stories abounded during this era too. One example highlighting the dubious nature of some practices came during the early 1990s, post-9½ Weeks and Basic Instinct erotic thriller boom. Legend has it that one indie distributor had an erotic thriller but, after submitting it to the BBFC, only received a 15 certificate. This would kill off its chances with rental buyers and renters themselves. Who wants to pay for something that quite clearly isn’t as raunchy as the rest of the choices in that section? As such, the enterprising distributor took some saucy and 18-rated scenes from another film it had UK rights to and, seemingly using the editing skills of a knife and fork, lumped them into its 15-rated thriller.
Never mind the fact that it was quite clearly completely different from what had gone before – the title received the requisite, all-important 18 certificate.
Post-1998, as DVD became the fastest growing and most successful consumer electronics launch ever in the UK, there was a similar thirst for films.
By 2009, many rental stores had disappeared, and, as Adam Eldrett, then a fresh-faced marketing manager at independent film distributor Momentum notes: “Even in the 1980s in the in the video days, the sleeve was crucial. You’d go into video shops and if it had someone with a big machine gun, or a scantily clad woman, or both, you might rent it.
“[The market in 2009] was an evolution of that. The only difference being that you weren’t going to Blockbuster to rent it, but you were buying films for five to ten quid in the supermarket.”
The market was bursting at the seams, however. Indie – and major – distributors were heading to the key film markets at Cannes, the American Film Market and more, with bulging cheque books and big shopping lists. Multi-film deals were being made, with all of them heading to the UK’s pre-streaming market, where physical media was still king.
Support from the likes of HMV was almost guaranteed – the retailer and other entertainment and music retailers of its ilk, including Virgin, which had morphed into Zavvi somewhere along the way before eventually failing in 2009 and later being revived as an online pop culture retailer, would take pretty much every film.
And if you could get into a supermarket, then there was a likely domino effect too: if one of the big four (Asda, Morrisons, Tesco or Sainsbury’s) took it, then the others could well follow suit. Titles with no theatrical background and little awareness could make a huge impact in this way and it was a fertile – and profitable – time for them.
Even in 2009, after the catastrophic failure of Woolworths and its parent Entertainment UK, which impacted retail home entertainment across the board, the DTV market was still a lucrative one.
And in Momentum’s offices, there was a film kicking about called Mulberry Street. Directed in 2006 by first-time helmer Jim Mickle, who would later go on to make strong genre fare such as Cold In July and Stake Land, it was a zero-budget piece, rumoured to have cost somewhere around the $60,000 mark. It featured residents of Manhattan, on the street of the title, coping as an outbreak saw people turned into rat-like creatures. Independent to its core, it was as much about gentrification as anything. Although in only getting a handful of photos from the shoot, those filmmakers had left distributors in a quandary as there were precious few materials with which to market the film.
“I’ve now worked in film and TV for more than 20 years,” says Adam Eldrett, who has, since leaving Momentum, worked at Universal Pictures and now indie distributor Altitude. “I can’t believe films get made. People spend tens or hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions and no one thinks, ‘shall we send a photographer on set?’”
Artwork for a film poster and accompanying physical media sleeve, press coverage and more, is unlikely with so few images.
“All we had [for Mulberry Street] was six images, one of which was a street sign to use as a title treatment,” Eldrett recalls.
Thus: no materials on an already low-budget film (there were no special effects in it to speak of), but Momentum still thought it might have something it could work with.
“We had a track record with DTV and I was known as the guy who put helicopters on the sleeve,” says Eldrett.
“[Momentum head of sales] Neil Williams was an advocate for the strength of a sleeve, it was so important. He and his team had to put it in front of customers, buyers at HMV, Sansbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda. If they liked the sleeve it could take off.”
As such, the company started looking at the sleeve, potential imagery and a potential new name. As ever in the home entertainment sector, zombies were big business, even ahead of the launch of The Walking Dead. Genre was king, so the decision was made to rename it Zombie Virus On Mulberry Street, irrespective of the fact there were no zombies within a mile of the aforementioned thoroughfare.
“We started looking at licensing different images,” says Eldrett. “We wanted a zombie sleeve. Eventually, we thought ‘let’s do a photo shoot’. But getting models cost a fortune.
“Basically, someone said you’re quite skinny and gaunt, you can be the zombie. We spoke to our designers, The Whole Hog [now called Oink], and they said come down to the studio. We did head shots of me growling and pulling faces at the camera. Within a few clicks they must have thought, ‘actually this is going to work’.”
And things then snowballed from there. With Eldrett as the zombie, it was then decided to add more. “We then started to get other members of staff in the office involved, our media team… everyone.”
The shoot was booked, with accompanying wardrobe and make-up to zombie-fy the participants. Then the sales team led by Neil Williams hit on another idea and started getting retailers involved in the photoshoot too.
As Eldrett says: “Once you’ve invited Sainsbury’s, got dressed up, covered each other in blood and done the shoot, they had to take the DVD.”
One retailer taking it meant others did too.
The final sleeve features Eldrett as the “lead zombie”, surrounded by colleagues from the sales team, their media agency and retailers.
The result? The film was stocked by retailers and scored a big success for the company, much to the chagrin of other distributors, who had to begrudgingly admit that Momentum had hit on a great idea and executed it brilliantly. They’d turned a low-budget film with no press materials into gold, and others began looking at what they could do – it appeared at the time as if renaming was rife.
“We’d taken a film that cost a pittance and turned it into something that’s got supermarket distribution,” says Eldrett now. “It definitely worked, it sold very well. It’s not that bad a film. It’s a good, low-budget title from an ambitious independent filmmaker and we took it to a wider audience. Involving the retailer took the shame away from it and we made a great bit of artwork.”
The strangest part of all, says, Eldrett, was the fact that, as part of an ongoing outdoor advertising spot taking in 25 sites on the London underground network, the ‘zombies’ appeared on six sheet posters at tube stations around the capital.
“We had a package of 25 tube station ads, and I’ve got a picture of a few of us from the artwork crouched next to the posters. To me that was even weirder – there we were on a poster on the tube like proper actors.”