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Are Home Video Releases Coming Too Soon for Theaters?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wouldn’t you love to be able to rent “Sea of Love” or “Black Rain"--or any of the other films currently playing at theaters--at your local video store just a few months from now?

That pipe dream has been fueled recently by the fact that several of this year’s summer blockbusters are making the jump to cassette just that fast. The home video business seems to be moving toward shorter “windows"--industry slang for the time between a movie’s theatrical opening and its home video debut.

Traditionally, blockbusters--roughly defined as movies that gross $75 million to $100 million at the box office--aren’t available on home video until somewhere between nine and 12 months after theatrical release. The average movie comes to home video six months after it opens in theaters. These windows, standard since early in the decade, are unofficial, but have been adhered to rather strictly--until recently.

In quick succession it was announced that two of the big summer movies--"Batman” ($245 million gross) and “Ghostbusters II” ($111 million gross)--would be available on home video in November. Normally, neither would have been available on cassette until at least March or April.

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Then Nelson/Orion followed with word that “When Harry Met Sally . . .” ($86 million gross) would be out on home video in December. The announcement was made while the movie, which opened in mid-July, was still among the nation’s top-grossing films.

An industry move toward shorter windows would tip the delicate balance between the theatrical and home video markets in favor of home video. Consumers, retailers and home video companies would benefit, but theater owners wouldn’t. The latter are concerned that drastically shortened windows--maybe lower than four months--will become a trend for all movies, not just these few blockbusters this fall.

“If people know they can see a movie on home video a few months after it’s in theaters, they might decide to wait and rent it instead,” said Tim Warner, president of the California division of the National Assn. of Theater Owners. “Also, people who might go see a movie for a second or third time, which happens with the blockbuster movies, might decide to wait if they know they could see it on home video not long after its theatrical release.”

The exhibitors’ strongest arguement for maintaining the six-month window is that it maximizes a movie’s box-office gross. That’s also important for the home-video market since the biggest grossing movies tend to be the most popular rentals. For video retailers, box-office business is still the most reliable gauge of a film’s rental potential.

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Home video executives say theater owners should rest easy.

“The six-month window is there because it makes good sense,” said Reg Childs, president of Nelson Entertainment. “It usually takes about three months for the average movie to do what it has to do at the box office. Then it takes about three months for the video company to set the advertising and promotional campaign.

“Some movies build slowly, some start fast and drop off badly. You really need about three months to see what a movie is going to do. Then you base your campaign on that. If a movie comes out on home video after four months, that means the decision on the campaign was made after the movie was out one month. That’s not enough time.”

“The six-month window is safe,” said Eric Doctorow, senior vice president and general manager of Paramount Home Video. “But there will always be exceptions.”

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This year’s exceptions--"Batman,” “Ghostbusters II” and “When Harry Met Sally . . ."--are breaking the blockbuster window for one simple reason--to take advantage of the holiday market. Home video companies can sell more copies to retailers and distributors who are stocking up for Christmas.

“When you have a hot, low-priced ($24.98) title like ‘Batman’ that fits into the Christmas market,” Childs said, “you have to put it out in October or early November to maximize its home video potential. Put it out early next year, you don’t make as much money.”

John Trasher, product manager for the Tower chain, noted: “Our order for ‘Batman’ is our biggest of any title ever. We’re ordering more--about 10-15% more--because of Christmas. If it came out a few months later, in the winter or spring, we wouldn’t order as many because the gift-buying season is over.”

Capitalizing on the holiday rental market is also the reason offered by Paul Culberg of RCA/Columbia for releasing “Ghostbusters II” by Nov. 22, priced at $90 and geared to the rental market.

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“That Thanksgiving holiday may be the biggest rental period of the year,” he said. “By having the movie out in time for that market and for Christmas, we sell more copies. Why wait until early next year and sell fewer copies?”

Childs, explaining why Nelson Entertainment is releasing “When Harry Met Sally . . .” in December, said, “It’s a great holiday movie--a warm, romantic comedy, the kind people want to rent at that time of year. The week after Christmas and the first few days of January is a phenomenal rental period. We may be able to sell 20,000 to 25,000 more copies by bringing it out then, which adds up to about $1.5 million more.”


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