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Is Bad Publicity Good for Rentals? We’ll Find Out Soon

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity is going to get a workout this month with the video releases of “Showgirls,” “Priest” and “Kids.”

They arrive in stores in the wake of tumultuous theatrical 1995 runs. Each generated passionate reactions that ranged from mostly critical scorn to protest and controversy. But retailers are hoping that what might be considered liabilities in the theatrical market could be a boon on the video side.

“Showgirls,” Paul Verhoeven’s heaving Las Vegas saga, arrives in stores today on the MGM/UA Home Video label as one of the year’s most vilified films and, at $20 million, a box-office bust. Compounding this was the film’s NC-17 rating, which would as a matter of policy have kept it out of the biggest video chain, Blockbuster, a loss of more than 3,300 stores.

No problem. Bad word-of-mouth may keep people from paying full theater ticket prices but does not necessarily keep them from spending a couple of dollars to check it out on video. In a display of naked ambition, MGM/UA mounted an aggressive campaign to entice video retailers and distributors. (MGM/UA officials declined to be interviewed for this story.) “The most controversial film of the year is ready to perform on video,” ads trumpeted, further noting the film’s “phenomenal nationwide exposure.”

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In an unprecedented move to accommodate more conservative retailers, MGM/UA, with the participation of Verhoeven, created an R-rated version of the film, which Blockbuster, among others, has agreed to stock.

To some retailers, this turn of events is more offensive than anything in the film. “A video store is first and foremost a purveyor of videos,” said Ken Dorrance, owner of Video Station in Alameda. “I don’t think it is a video store’s right to decide which videos customers should or shouldn’t watch. You should not censor.”

The decision by some stores to stock only the NC-17 version of “Showgirls” is part ideological. “We don’t bring in edited versions of anything, just as we don’t stock dubbed versions of subtitled foreign films,” said Cynthia DiRuscio, manager of Vide-O-lympix in Huntington Beach.

It is also part business, a way to differentiate one’s store from the competition. “We choose to bring in more controversial product because others in the neighborhood won’t,” DiRuscio added. “We let the customers choose what they want to watch.”

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Ironically, in the case of “Showgirls,” what they want to watch is the original version of the film that was so maligned and quickly abandoned in theaters. “People are curious,” said Karen Peterson, video buyer for Wherehouse Entertainment. “Many will rent what they won’t go to see.”

Whether this maxim holds true for “Priest,” to be released Jan. 9 by Miramax Home Entertainment, remains to be seen. Antonia Bird’s anguished British drama was met with predictable hostility and protest similar to what greeted another movie about religion, Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

“Priest” received fervent critical support and won film festival awards, and Blockbuster will carry the R-rated title. But retailers confess that the film’s sensitive subject matter--a gay priest in moral and spiritual crisis--may put off customers.

Miramax, owned by the Walt Disney Co., is being “meticulously careful” in marketing the film, said one industry source. There has been nowhere near the amount of trade advertising being afforded other Miramax titles, particularly “Showgirls” and “Kids.” (Miramax Home Entertainment officials declined to be interviewed for this story.)

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“I haven’t received anything at all,” said Eddie Azim, manager of 20/20 Video on Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles. “As soon as it comes out, we’ll have a few people who are unhappy about it. It’s about the church, about priests and about religion.”

That’s “Kids” stuff compared to Larry Clark’s unflinching look at a day in the life of a group of amoral, drug-smoking, shoplifting, unsafe-sex-seeking New York skateboarders.

“Kids,” available Jan. 30 on the Vidmark Entertainment label, was a cause celebre at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals and was released to theaters unrated. Blockbuster considers such titles on a “case-by-case” basis, said spokesperson Wally Knief. In this case, the film’s graphic language and sexual content were deemed unsuitable, so it will not be stocked by the chain.

Vidmark is “passionate” in its support of “Kids.” For starters, company officials agreed to be interviewed for this story. Unlike “Showgirls,” there will not be an edited edition for home video. “Larry Clark totally believes in his vision of the movie,” said Tim Swain, senior vice president of domestic distribution. “This is the movie he wanted to make and wants to be seen.”

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Vidmark has had experience in marketing commercially risky films on video. It previously released “Longtime Companion” and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” and will release later this year Gregg Araki’s “The Doom Generation.”

Which is not to say that Vidmark is trying to set itself up as a “rebel company,” Swain said. “We have always had and still have concerns [about the film’s controversial content]. There continues to be some resistance in the retail community, but we’re trying to look at this as a challenge rather than a liability.”

“The one thing we had going for us is that everybody did ask about the film, starting with the grocery accounts,” said Ron Schwartz, Vidmark vice president of domestic home video. “Everybody wants to take a look and make a decision as to whether the film will work for them. It is still a battle for us that we’re winning a little bit.”

Among the weapons in this battle was a special screener sent to key accounts called “The Streets Are Talking,” which contained scenes from the film and highlighted the publicity the film had generated.

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As for the film itself, Vidmark has not treated it with kid gloves. “This is an important film for parents and kids to see,” Schwartz said. “It’s not a movie you can lie about [to retailers]. You’ve got to let people know what the movie is. We don’t want this in the kids’ section, although you know that will happen somewhere. We have played up the social issues [the film addresses] and that there are a lot of differing opinions on [the film]. But everyone who sees it will want to talk about it, and we are hammering that home. It absolutely won’t sit on the shelves.”

That’s what retailers like DiRuscio are counting on for all three titles. “I’m not sure how people’s psyches work,” she said, “but every movie that is controversial in theaters has enjoyed a very healthy run in video stores. The

more press it gets, the more people want to come in and see it.”

Dorrance said that making these films accessible is an important function of home video, and he will often buy extra copies of a film that did not receive the mainstream acceptance or exposure of an “Apollo 13.”

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“There are more people who have not seen ‘Priest’ or ‘Kids,’ ” he said. “When a lot of customers brought back ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ they wanted to talk about it. On video people can watch these films in the privacy of their homes and not be judged by anybody. They don’t have to be seen standing in a long line or cross a picket line. I think that is an important benefit we offer.”


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