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Alien Sightings (At a Store Near You)

Diane Garrett is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The aliens have landed--and they’re at a video store near you. The current rage for creatures from another planet has spread to videodom, resulting in a flurry of sightings at stores.

Credit--or blame, depending on your point of view--goes to “The X-Files,” now in its third season on the Fox network. The sci-fi program has just made its highly anticipated video debut--unusual timing for a network series still on the air, but the show’s devoted legions asked for it.

“We have a lot of ‘X-Files’ conventions, and that’s a question that always comes up,” says creator Chris Carter. “I think if people want them, that’s reason enough to do it.”

As a bonus for fans, Carter taped an introduction for each of the three double-episode tapes--"insights you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise"--addressing issues like casting decisions or special-effects problems.

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“I tried to make it things I’ve never talked about because no one has ever asked,” he says. “I’ve talked about ‘The X-Files’ a lot over the last three years.”

A skeptic by nature, Carter did not set out to convert new believers when creating the show. He just wanted to tell interesting stories in interesting ways. “That’s what keeps people coming back week after week,” he says.

And it also keeps them looking for videos with a similar sensibility. The first to tap into the current supernatural fixation was “Alien Autopsy (Fact or Fiction?),” a controversial documentary released on video in September. It features graphic black-and-white footage reportedly shot during a 1947 government autopsy in Roswell, N.M., when the military quickly refuted its own UFO sighting. It still sells--and rents--to the curious, despite widespread airing on network TV, first in August and two times since. Its success has prompted Vidmark Entertainment, the tape’s U.S. distributor, to open negotiations with its producers for a follow-up documentary.

More recent was the release of three installments of “Sightings,” a popular syndicated program that will soon be seen on cable’s Sci-Fi Channel. “The UFO Report,” “The Ghost Report” and “The Psychic Experience” hit stores Feb. 20.

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“Sightings” executive producer Henry Winkler--best known as the Fonz--doesn’t only credit “The X-Files” as the force behind the public’s fascination with the paranormal. He also believes that, as the millennium approaches, more people believe there could be life on other planets.

“I think people are finally becoming more open to the possibility,” Winkler says. “I’ve always thought in this vast universe, it was hubris to think we were the only beings.”

Powered by this belief and convinced “there is a whole energy on this earth we either didn’t know or didn’t want to know,” Winkler created the reality-based program (airing in Los Angeles on KTTV Channel 11), which takes a newsy approach to the otherwise inexplicable.

To prepare the first three home videos, Winkler culled segments from the show’s first four years, dividing them thematically. Of the three resulting tapes, “The UFO Report” has had strongest initial sales, says a Paramount Home Video spokesman.

That comes as no revelation to Don Gold, Vidmark sell-through programming vice president. While marketing “Alien Autopsy,” he learned just how much fascination the public has with UFOs. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says, “it was a real eye-opener.”

No stranger to off-the-wall programming, Gold was approached about distributing “Alien Autopsy” while he was in the audience of “The Ultimate Fighting Championship,” an anything-goes bout he brought to video. After acquiring the video rights, Vidmark rushed the program to stores within weeks of the original network airdate.

With a “Hard Copy"-style presentation verging on the campy, the program explores both the 1947 incident and newly surfaced footage, offering testimony from eyewitnesses and from renowned special-effects wizard Stan Winston.

On the video, the new footage is run in its entirety after the program’s conclusion. Though many contend that the footage is fake, video sales have been surprisingly strong for a documentary, hovering between 125,000 and 150,000 units.

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“It is our No. 1-selling acquisition we’ve had in the three years since I’ve been here,” Gold says. “We have sales every week.”

He attributes the tape’s success to several factors, not the least being “The X-Files,” which mentioned “Alien Autopsy” in an episode this season.

“Interest in UFOs has never been higher, because of ‘The X-Files,’ ” Gold says. “If you look at what’s coming out in the summer, Fox has a great big UFO movie with ‘Independence Day.’ ”

Besides that, he says, “there are lingering questions about Roswell.” The incident also inspired “Roswell,” a 1994 Showtime movie starring Martin Sheen that is popular with renters, and it is mentioned in the “Sightings” series “UFO Report.” The latter, in fact, features some of the same eyewitnesses, though none of the new footage.

Vidmark makes no apologies for the footage, real or fake.

“All we ever wanted to do with the tape was open the possibility that there was something that did happen in Roswell,” Gold says. “Whether scientists or Hollywood special-effects experts, no one has come forward to say it’s not authentic. Until somebody comes forward, we’re leaving it to the people to decide.”

For Carter, now filming the pilot for another Fox paranormal series, called “Millennium,” a bigger question remains: Has all of this changed the way people think? He doesn’t think so.

“ ‘The X-Files’ has opened the door and made viable the spooky genre,” he says simply.

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Joe Pagano, video buyer for Best Buy, a 250-store chain, says supernatural videos are merely the latest fashion.

“We somewhat mirror what’s happening theatrically and on television,” Pagano says, “and there seems to be a plethora of programs on television right now that drives an awareness. Look at what happened a few years ago when ‘Wyatt Earp’ and ‘Tombstone’ were at the box office and westerns were big. It’s cyclical.”

Extraterrestrials aren’t exactly new, either, Carter points out:

“Steven Spielberg made some beautiful alien movies, if you will, with ‘E.T’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ ” he says. “I don’t see this as a new trend. I see it as an old trend made new.”


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