Film Classics Still Eluding Video Viewers


Apparently, there’s nothing video fans crave more than the gems they aren’t allowed to see--either because of rights disputes or because a movie studio has decided it can make more money by saving its films for re-release in the theaters.

At Music Plus stores alone, patrons make 2,000 requests a week for films that aren’t on video, according to Mitch Perliss, director of purchasing for the 50-store chain in the Los Angeles and Orange County area.

Such requests may occasionally get titles out of the studio closets, according to video insiders. In the words of one video executive: “The more pressure there is on companies from the public regarding specific titles, the more often the companies are reminded to look into those titles.”


One victory for video viewers: Universal Pictures’ recent decision to release a cassette version of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” one of the most requested cassettes.

But many films are still locked up--and may stay that way for years. A few examples:

“Bringing Up Baby.” This 1938 RKO screwball comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant is “the title that’s requested the most,” according to Ellen Wander, vice president in charge of home video distribution at Turner Entertainment Co. Martina Navratilova, whose workout tape was produced by Turner, even called recently to ask for it, Wander said. “It’s her favorite film.” But there’s “a dispute over the ownership to the movie--whether the rights are held by Fox or RKO Pictures, which in turn would be Turner Entertainment.” Turner acquired RKO’s film library in 1987.

“Sorcerer.” Even director William Friedkin (“Exorcist”) wants to know why fans can’t rent or buy his film in which Roy Scheider trucksnitroglycerin to an outpost in the South American jungles. “I get literally hundreds of pieces of mail a year asking me where, how and why people (can) get a video of ‘Sorcerer’--mostly from young people,” Friedkin said. “The requests I get are from all over the country.”

According to spokesmen for Paramount and Universal, which co-produced the film in 1977, neither company acquired the cassette rights. Instead, the rights are held by a foreign corporation, according to Sheldon Mittleman, house counsel to Universal.

“In any event, I suspect (the holdup) is more of a marketing decision,” Mittleman said. “A lot of pictures have not been released because it’s decided that they were not commercially viable at a particular given time.”

“Heavy Metal.” This 1981 animated film, released by Columbia, features almost wall-to-wall music by Black Sabbath, Devo, Cheap Tricks, Stevie Nicks and other artists. “In cases where there’s an awful lot of music, it can take a number of years to even locate everybody who has to be cleared,” said Larry Estes, vice president of programming and acquisitions for RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video. “Protracted negotiations to get the necessary permissions and clearances” are therefore now under way for ‘Heavy Metal,’ ” Estes said.

“Baby, It’s You.” Legal clearances also couldn’t be obtained for all the music to this John Sayles-directed romance starring Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano, a Paramount Home Video spokesman said.

“Fantasia.” People are clamoring to see Walt Disney’s 1940 animated classic at home, but it may never be released on home video, said Bill Mechanic, president of Buena Vista Home Video. Disney’s first feature cartoon, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), might never make it to the small screen either.

“These really are . . . treasures of the past (that endure from) generation to generation,” Mechanic said, speaking reverentially of “one of the most recognized symbols of the company. It (“Fantasia”) is (reserved for) theatrical distribution, and it will stay in theatrical distribution.” (“Fantasia” will return to the big screen for its 50th anniversary in 1990.)

Other Disney films such as “Bambi” and “101 Dalmatians” are in demand, too. In fact, of the 23 animated films in the company’s library, only seven have been released on video, and Buena Vista plans to release only one more each year.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” This is the film “that people would go cuckoo over” if they could get it, said one video insider. But squealing, foot-stomping, rice-throwing, costumed audiences still go to midnight showings of “Rocky” 13 years after its release by 20th Century Fox. So since this campy musical satire of classical schlock Hollywood horror movies is still a money-maker, it won’t be released on video, a Fox spokesman said.

“Children of Paradise.” This landmark film that takes place during the Nazi occupation doesn’t seem to be a likely video candidate, either. “I’ve been trying to expand our license to include home video,” said Allen Green, president of the entertainment division of Films Inc. in Chicago, a large non-theatrical distributor of educational and cultural films. Films Inc. has the non-theatrical distribution rights in the United States, but Pathe Cinema in Paris owns the worldwide rights. “They’ve chosen not to do it,” he said, noting that he’d been trying for three years.

“Annie Get Your Gun.” “Without question” this 1950 MGM musical version of the life of Annie Oakley would be released if feasible, said Herb Fisher, senior vice president of sales and marketing for MGM/UA Home Video.

But Irving Berlin, who wrote the score for the film and who owns the rights to it, “does not want to see the film released in any media . . . for a number of personal reasons,” said Berlin’s attorney, Seymour Bricker. The rights reverted back to Berlin after 28 years--the original period of copyright. But other films with Berlin’s music, such as “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas,” are offered on home video.

“Porgy and Bess.” The music rights to this 1959 Samuel Goldwyn opera have reverted to the composer’s family. “It is the judgment of the (George) Gershwin family that it shouldn’t be available,” said Ronald Blanc, attorney for Mrs. Ira Gershwin, who, like Berlin’s attorney, declined to be specific. “Plans are under discussion for a new film that would be the complete opera,” Blanc said. “That’s in part a reason right there.”

Other glaring omissions from video libraries include some older Academy Award-winning films, such as Fox’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), MGM’s “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936) and MGM’s “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), said Steven Apple, executive editor of Video Insider magazine, a weekly news publication for video stores and suppliers.

Still, some encouraging news is in sight for videophiles:

“Hamlet” with Laurence Olivier, the 1948 Academy Award-winning picture sought after by high school and college students cramming for exams, was just released by Paramount Home Video on April 20, along with “Great Expectations” and other Rank classics.

“Pal Joey.” Music issues were cleared late last year on this 1957 Columbia musical featuring Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth, and it had been planned for release this year. “We’re still trying to schedule it at an appropriate time,” said Estes of RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video. “We wanted to give it a little better attention.”

“The Pajama Game.” The rights to this 1957 Warner Bros. film with Doris Day and John Raitt reverted to the original property rights holders, but Warner recently renegotiated to get them back, explained Michael Finnegan, director of publicity and program planning for Warner Home Video. The company hopes to issue a videocassette version within a couple of years, Finnegan said.

In late July, MGM/UA Home Video is releasing “movies you’ve always wanted to see.” Included in the “Hooray for Hollywood” releases are “Father of the Bride,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Executive Suite,” “A Guy Named Joe” and “Sweet Smell of Success.”