WILL 'SCROOGE' SPIELBERG STEAL CHRISTMAS?

Times Staff Writer

The nation's video retailers have a nickname for director Steven Spielberg--Scrooge.

They see him as the villain who's keeping them from enjoying the merriest of Christmases. To a video retailer, a Merry Christmas means stores full of well-heeled customers buying videocassettes. One event that would generate a mad rush--the biggest ever--to video stores in December would be the videocassette release of Spielberg's "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial."

According to one insider, the release date--on MCA Home Video--and the price are totally up to Spielberg. Retailers were hoping the 1982 movie would be available this Christmas but "Scrooge" Spielberg, so far, hasn't given the OK.

What's Spielberg waiting for? According to the source, he's hesitant about releasing "E.T." on cassette because he feels it won't play well on TV screens. That's a weak arguement. "E.T." works on sentiment, not elaborate special effects. If TV is good enough for a special effects extravaganza like "Star Wars," it's certainly good enough for that little green creature.

Meir Hed, who co-owns the Videotheque stores in Westwood and Beverly Hills, contends that "E.T." is finished as a blockbuster theatrical attraction--"It did OK this last release (about $35 million) but the next time it'll be much less"--but would generate whopping profits as a cassette.

"If 'E.T.' came out about Dec. 15, it would likely be an incredible hit," Hed explained. "In six months, it could sell 2 million copies and be the biggest videocassette in history. At $29.95, that would mean about $28 million profit."

Hed made another point: "There are many bootleg copies of 'E.T.' around. The quality of these copies isn't very good. If Spielberg is worried about people seeing 'E.T.' under inadequate conditions, the existence of those bootleg copies must really bother him. If the studio released it, at least the copies would be decent. And think of all the money they're losing on the bootleg copies."

It's Spielberg's move.

STAR WARS III: The rumors about a February videocassette debut of "The Return of the Jedi," the third-highest grossing movie in history, have turned out to be true. CBS-Fox recently announced that the third episode of the "Star Wars" trilogy will be available on Feb. 25--but not, as many had hoped, at a bargain price. It will sell for the standard $79.98.

The announcement came about two months earlier than expected. Apparently CBS-Fox is planning an expensive marketing campaign that it wants to begin as soon as possible.

The decision to wait until February puzzles many industry experts. It's hard to believe that "Jedi" would do better in February than it would during the holiday season when many shoppers turn into spendthrifts. That $79.98 price tag would seem less formidable to shoppers in a spending mood.

ODDS 'N' ENDS: According to wrestling video expert Steelman Rocco, a Nov. 7 match in Chicago may still wind up as the second installment of the hugely popular "Wrestlemania." The Chicago event features eight matches, including the biggie between Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper. The TV matches that preempt "Saturday Night Live," are, noted Rocco, part of the buildup for that Nov. 7 extravaganza.

Jane Fonda's newest cassette, "Jane Fonda's New Workout" (Karl-Lorimar: $39.95), is scheduled for release next week. A continuation of her first cassette, "Jane Fonda's Workout," this should be a big seller.

A study published in the industry newsletter VCR Letter indicates that there will be 500 million tape rental transactions by the end of the year. At an average price of $2.50 per rental, that's $1.25 billion in revenues.

MADONNA: "A Certain Sacrifice," a low-budget movie Madonna starred in five years ago, is in the stores this week (Virgin: $59.95). Considering that it was made for less than $100,000 by an inexperienced director, Stephen Lewicki, it's not bad.

Madonna, who has several semi-nude scenes, is an adequate actress. She does her best acting in the scene following a rape. Throughout this tawdry drama, you can see the early beginnings of her current stage persona, the pouty seductress.

This film, which includes no singing by Madonna, would probably still be gathering dust on a shelf somewhere if she hadn't enhanced its value by becoming a superstar.

How does Lewicki feel about the frequent charge that he's simply exploiting her?

"If people say that, I don't mind," he replied. "People do things like this in this business all the time. It's the nature of this business. I hope the videocassette makes lots of money."

Another Madonna cassette is due out next month. This one, scheduled for Nov. 4 release, is more recent. "Madonna Live: The Virgin Tour" was shot last spring in Detroit. The 50-minute cassette, which includes 10 songs, will sell for $29.98.

OLD MOVIES: On Nov. 19 "The Girl Can't Help it" (Key Video: $59.98), by far the best of the '50s rock 'n' roll movies, will finally be available. Jayne Mansfield, at her bubbly best, is the star. It features a classic sequence: Little Richard singing the title song while Mansfield prances. Also includes performances by Fats Domino and the Platters.

Another gem, to be released on Dec. 5, is "Christmas in July," a wacky 1940 Preston Sturges movie starring Dick Powell and Ellen Drew. Though not one of Sturges' better known films, it ranks among his three best ("Sullivan's Travels" and "The Lady Eve" are the other two). This MCA release is priced at $59.95.

NEW AND COMING MOVIES: The first part of October should be quiet on the videocassette front. The action this month begins with the Oct. 23 release of "Ghostbusters" by RCA/Columbia. Before that no recent hit movies are scheduled to bow on cassette.

"Grace Quigley," the Nick Nolte-Katherine Hepburn black comedy that had limited release, will be out next week on MGM/UA. "Ladyhawke," the romantic fantasy-adventure that wasn't a hit, debuts Oct. 21 on Warner Video.

Another Chuck Norris movie is due. "Code of Silence"--on Thorn/EMI/HBO--easily his finest film, will be in the stores Nov. 20. MCA recently announced that "Fletch," the Chevy Chase comedy that was a hit this summer, will be in the stores Dec. 5.

WHAT'S HOT: The hot newcomers are "Amadeus" and "The Breakfast Club," which are climbing impressively on both the Billboard magazine rental and sales charts. They should be among the Top Five rentals at least until next month.

On the next rental chart, "Missing in Action 2"--the Chuck Norris adventure--and "Police Academy 2," may be in the Top 10. Both debuted low this week.

TOP CASSETTES, RENTALS

1--"The Killing Fields" (Warner Video).

2--"The Breakfast Club" (MCA).

3--"Desperately Seeking Susan" (Thorn/EMI/HBO).

4--"Amadeus" (Thorn/EMI/HBO).

5--"The Karate Kid" (RCA/Columbia).

6--"The Sure Thing" (Embassy).

7--"A Soldier's Story" (RCA/Columbia).

8--"A Passage to India" (RCA/Columbia).

9--"The Falcon and the Snowman" (Vestron).

10--"Starman" (RCA/Columbia).

TOP CASSETTES, SALES

1--"Jane Fonda's Workout" (Karl-Lorimar).

2--"Prince and the Revolution Live" (Warner Music).

3--"Amadeus" (Thorn/EMI/HBO).

4--"We Are the World: The Video Event" (MusicVision).

5--"Prime Time" (Karl-Lorimar).

6--"Pinocchio" (Disney).

7--"The Breakfast Club" (MCA).

8--"Wrestlemania" (Coliseum).

9--"Wham The Video" (CBS-Fox).

10--"Desperately Seeking Susan" (Thorn/EMI/HBO).

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