For box-office champs such as “Rain Man” and “Working Girl,” an Oscar isn’t much more than a hood ornament when it comes to video sales. But for smaller films such as “Pelle the Conqueror,” or those with poor theatrical runs such as “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” it can boost mileage considerably. Increasingly aware of this, some video distributors appear to be gearing more releases to the Oscar season.
Take, for example, “Tucker.” Released in August, Francis Ford Coppola’s outsized automotive metaphor was towed from theaters in November with receipts of less than $20 million. But when Academy Award nominations were announced in February and “Tucker” landed a single spot--best supporting actor for Martin Landau--Paramount set the video release date for two weeks after this Wednesday’s Oscarcast and began preselling the cassettes. The campaign to exploit the nomination was on.
“It’s difficult to put a number on what Oscar adds to a film’s video sales,” Hollace Brown, vice president of advertising and promotion for Paramount Home Video, says of the “promotional opportunity” offered by the Academy Awards. Television ads for the “Tucker” video will feature Martin Landau’s performance. “We certainly hope to get a lift in sales.”
Paramount declined to pin a number on its hopes, but the video sales of previous winners can give a clue.
In the case of “Wall Street,” for example, for which Michael Douglas won the best-actor award last year, CBS-Fox Marketing Vice President Bruce Pfander estimates that sales to retailers were about 15% higher because of the publicity surrounding the Oscar.
“ ‘The Last Emperor’ probably sold an extra 75,000 cassette copies because of Oscar,” Nelson Entertainment Executive Vice President Rand Bleimeister says of the 1987 winner of nine Academy Awards, including best picture. When released to video in September of 1988, “Emperor” sold 330,000 units.
Nelson’s experience shows that smaller films with wins in major categories tend to benefit the most from Oscar. Videocassette sales for 1985’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” were doubled by William Hurt’s best-actor win that year as a homosexual prisoner, Bleimeister says. Considered an art film, “It would have been a difficult movie to sell, had the academy not made it an important movie,” he says.
The same was true for “The Trip to Bountiful” after its star, Geraldine Page, took the Academy Award for best actress that same year, Bleimeister says. The trick in that case was similar to what Paramount hopes to do with “Tucker"--time the video release to coincide with the Oscar season. “We started soliciting (sales) immediately after the nominations and shipped immediately after the Academy Award telecast,” he says. Without such tight timing, he’s convinced “Bountiful” wouldn’t have come close to the 80,000 units it sold.
Nelson Entertainment took greatest advantage of Oscar’s attention with its marketing of “Hope and Glory,” a British import with five nominations but no wins in 1987. Bleimeister claims its cassette sales of 115,000 units were doubled by timing the video’s street date for three weeks after last year’s Oscarcast. “We made a lot of hay out of the fact it was nominated for best picture,” Bleimeister says. “A lot of retailers had never even heard of it. Plus, it was a British film. We overcame all of that bias with the legitimacy of the Academy Awards.”
Still, Oscars can’t turn a movie with modest rental appeal into a blockbuster, maintains Harvey Dossick, director of purchasing for the West Coast Video chain.
“Some of these Oscar-winners are long, slow, arty movies,” he said. “People who like comedies, action/adventure movies and plain entertainments aren’t going to suddenly change their tastes and rent this kind of movie--Oscars or not. Oscars can be a boost but they won’t change certain people’s tastes.”
Another problem is that the video industry’s long lead time--most films aren’t released on cassette for at least six months after their theatrical release--doesn’t always allow video manufacturers to time a release to the Academy Awards. But more may try to do so as sales figures prove the advantages of releasing some movies at Oscar time.
The pre-Academy Award business that “Platoon” attracted on its way to winning the best picture Oscar for 1986 may have contributed to a well-publicized contract dispute over distribution rights.
In a typical business move film’s producer, Hemdale Film Corp., had sold video rights to Vestron Inc. while the movie was still in production, and Vestron’s payments contributed to the film’s completion. But it was right around Oscar time that Hemdale claimed Vestron had voided the contract by missing a payment. Hemdale then cut a new deal with HBO’s home video division. Vestron filed suit. Litigation involving Hemdale, HBO and Vestron kept the film out of video stores until January, 1988, four months past the originally anticipated date.
In an out-of-court settlement, Vestron got $15.7 million and HBO got rights to the first round of “Platoon’s” distribution.
Whether Oscar or publicity surrounding the legal battles helped keep the film alive, the delay didn’t diminish its popularity. HBO shipped more than 330,000 cassettes at a record price of $99.98. Nine months later, the rights reverted to Vestron, which shipped an undisclosed number of units at a sell-through price of $24.98. The film came in seventh overall in video sales for the year 1988.
“Marketing is creating a positive image for a film in the minds of retailers,” Bleimeister says. “Oscars and box office are our two strongest tools for doing that.”
It’s box office, though, that has the bigger say in what a film’s video sales will be. “Moonstruck,” which won six fewer Oscars than “Last Emperor,” did triple the box office and consequently more than triple the video sales, with more than 400,000 cassettes sold in 1988. It ranked eighth for the year in video sales; “Last Emperor” trailed at 23rd.
“Oscar helped ‘Moonstruck,’ ” says Herb Fischer, senior vice president of sales and marketing for MGM/United Artists. But how much? “Maybe 15%--that’s just a guess. It had such high recognition when it hit the stores--would it have done 20% less without the Oscars? I don’t know.”
MGM/UA doesn’t need an Academy win to boost “Rain Man’s” future video sales. To date, it’s done $126 million at the box office, is certain to sell at least 400,000 cassettes and you can rest assured that not a single copy will be available for rental the Saturday night you want to take it home. MCA, for example, was aware that Sigourney Weaver might get a best-actress nomination for “Gorillas in the Mist,” which is due out on home video April 13, about two weeks after the ceremonies. “That was a factor in determining where it fit in our release schedule,” said Louis Feola, MCA senior marketing vice president.
Likewise, CBS-Fox said the prospect of a best-actor nomination for Tom Hanks wasn’t a significant consideration in its decision to release “Big” this past week. “Here the big factor was the box-office gross,” Pfander said. “The movie made $114 million. That means it will be a big rental. It doesn’t need help from any nomination.”
Oscar’s greatest benefit to the video market, then, may be to make room for quality films that would otherwise be crowded off the shelves by the “Lethal Weapons” and “Dirty Dancing’s” of the world. And it could help them to stay there long after the others have slipped from circulation.
“An Oscar helps to make a movie an ‘evergreen,’ ” says Frank Moldstad, editor of Video Store Magazine. “Ten and 20 years down the road there will still be an interest in buying and renting it.”