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Renters Wonder: TV or Not TV Movie?

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Times Staff Writer

Recently a friend rented “The Long, Hot Summer” (Key Video, $79.95), starring Don Johnson and Cybill Shepherd, expecting a racy drama. But before he watched it, someone alerted him that it was a 1985 TV movie, not a feature film. He angrily returned it to the video store, complaining to the clerk that he’d been misled.

“If I’d known it was a TV movie,” he said, “I wouldn’t have rented it.”

Apparently, this isn’t an isolated incident.

Since it’s often difficult for renters to get their first choices, they frequently rent what’s available. Sometimes they’ll settle for an unfamiliar film--especially if it features stars and an alluring package. But occasionally what they think is a feature film may be a TV movie in disguise.

On those packages--and also in advertising and the promotional material they mail to publications such as The Times--video companies seldom reveal that the movie was originally made for television.

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For instance, New Star Video is distributing two TV dramas, the recently released “Unnatural Causes,” with John Ritter, and “Into Thin Air,” starring Ellen Burstyn, due May 25.

“We don’t advertise the fact that these are TV movies,” admitted Dimitri Villard, who heads New Star’s parent company, New Star Entertainment. “There probably would be less interest in them (if we did).”

Vidmark Video, also active in marketing TV movies, is promoting a made-for-TV Western, “The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James” (due May 25) and basking in the glory of another--”Stagecoach,” a 1986 TV movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, which was released last year. Vidmark has shipped about 45,000 copies of “Stagecoach,” making it the biggest selling TV-movie in the home video market.

“We’re not playing up the fact that these are TV movies,” said Vidmark marketing manager Gina Draklich.

Why not? What’s the stigma attached to TV movies?

Meir Hed, co-owner of the Videotheque chain, explained it best: “TV movies don’t have a theatrical flavor. They don’t take risks. Theatrical movies are more graphic in terms of sex, language and violence. If a customer rents a heavy drama in a video store, he expects it to be a feature film that would take an adult approach. If it’s a TV movie, he automatically knows it’s relatively tame. If it said ‘TV movie’ on the package, he probably wouldn’t rent it.”

Robert Michael Steloff, associate producer of “Stagecoach”--made by Heritage Entertainment, Inc.--agreed that, to home video customers, TV movies connote conservatism and low production values. He indicated that Vidmark’s practice of concealing made-for-TV status in the packaging and promoting of TV movies was merely good business.

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“We want higher revenues,” he said. “If you mention on the package that it’s a TV movie, this movie would be hurt in the rental market. It’s business. Why cut your own throat?”

According to Steloff, when the “Stagecoach” rights were for sale, the producers chose Vidmark over several other bidders because of its “marketing prowess.”

Vidmark even authenticates some of its TV movies by adding a theatrical rating.

“You just submit a movie to the (Motion Picture Assn. of America) rating board and they’ll rate it,” Draklich said. “It can cost between $800 and $5,000, depending on the movie. It’s nice for the consumer to have a rating on the box. When it has a rating, people perceive it more as a major movie. They don’t think it comes from TV.”

Another strike against TV movies: They invariably cost less than theatrical pictures and thereby reflect a less expensive look. According to Steloff, who’s produced many TV movies, the average one costs $2.5 million, while major studio productiokns usually cost between $15 million and $20 million. Even independent features, Steloff noted have bigger budgets than TV movies--generally from $5 million to $10 million.

Yet TV movies are usually marketed at feature-film prices--mostly at $79.95.

“They could at least market them at cheaper prices,” Hed complained. “They’re not really worth as much as feature films.”

But Draklich and Villard say they’re not trying to deceive the public.

“We don’t play up the fact that these are TV movies, but we don’t hide it either,” Draklich said. “If we’re asked, we’ll say they’re TV movies.”

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Said Villard: “A movie is a movie, TV or not. These TV movies are often better than many features.”

Draklich said Vidmark has received some negative feedback, but didn’t elaborate: “The store owners and distributors are sophisticated. They know what’s going on with these movies even if we don’t tell them. Some people are happy with these movies and obviously don’t care where they come from. This isn’t a crime.”

Since video companies don’t advertise the fact that they’re putting out made-for-TV movies, no one knows how many are on the market. But, according to Steloff, fewer TV movies will reach the home video market from now on.

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