To Tell the Truth, the Cover Often Doesn’t

Diane Garrett is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Jane Austen has never been a hotter Hollywood commodity than now. Yet her name alone wasn’t enough when Columbia TriStar Home Video designed the video box art for its 1995 movie “Persuasion.” The studio opted for an image more in keeping with a bodice-ripper than a genteel period drama. Austen still gets above-the-title billing, but the woman on the cover bears scant resemblance to the movie’s dowdy heroine.

“It’s, like, who’s this woman leaning forward with the cleavage?” says Sam Franklin, manager of a Seattle Rain City Video store.

“I don’t know who that woman is, but she’s not in the movie,” says Byl Holte, buyer for Philadelphia’s TLA Video chain.


There’s no heaving bosom on the cover of “Sense and Sensibility,” coming out June 25. Another Columbia TriStar release based on a Jane Austen novel, this one features its high-octane stars--Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant--in demure garb true to the movie.

The difference between these two covers is telling. With a bevy of stars and Academy Award recognition, “Sense and Sensibility” was considered a sure thing in the rental arena; lacking the star power and box-office clout, “Persuasion” was not. Hence, the come-hither box art.

The “Persuasion” cover, says Columbia TriStar Executive Vice President Paul Culberg, was designed to “broaden the audience beyond the draw of Jane Austen’s name.”

“Due to the lack of sufficient art to maximize the video box format, models were used in place of the available actors in the film,” he says.

‘Persuasion” isn’t the only recent video to suggest one thing and deliver another. Competing for attention in a crowded marketplace, studios have taken an increasingly creative approach to box art design. Marketing make-overs are endemic among art-house titles--Disney’s Miramax arm, a leading distributor of independent films, is known for taking liberties with box art. New box art is also commonly used for the re-release of pre-stardom clunkers and made-for-television or cable fare.

The tactic may help smaller movies stand out from the pack, but misleading box art can be an annoyance for renters trolling the aisles.

Think that movie’s a lighthearted romp? It could be a three-hankie weepie about a boy coping with the terminal illness of his mother, such as “Unstrung Heroes,” another 1995 release. Judging by the laughing faces on the box, however, you might think the movie was a real thigh-slapper and get caught without a tissue.

Box art is largely a matter of personal taste. It’s very subjective, responds a spokesman for Buena Vista Home Video, distributor for “Unstrung Heroes” and Miramax Home Video releases. “However, our cassettes almost always contain synopses and reviewer quotes, allowing the public to be led by the critics if they want to be.”

As the “Persuasion” box art illustrates, cleavage shots can be misleading too: They don’t necessarily herald sexy movies, and you can’t count on seeing the curves in the movie either. The sultry woman with a plunging neckline on the box art for “Bhaji on the Beach” is nowhere to be seen in the 1994 film, a low-key feminist tale about a group of Asian Indian women coping with racism and wife abuse in England, released by Columbia TriStar Home Video.

“Great movie, bad box art,” says Jerri Young, buyer for Video Isle, a small Seattle chain. “ ‘Bhaji on the Beach’ is not about an Indian woman with large breasts.”

“The story is about a multi-generational conflict, of which sexual activity is core to the story,” says Culberg of Columbia TriStar.

But Young says the box art misleads customers into expecting a sexy movie.

“What happens is people who would normally rent it are put off, and people who do rent it get pissed off,” she says.

Any time customers try to rent the movie at her stores, Young gives them fair warning: “I tell them, ‘You do know what the movie’s about, don’t you?’ ”

The Torrance-based Video Choice chain has a similar policy, says General Manager Bob McConnell. “We tell our people to be real truthful,” he says. If customers expect a different type of movie than they see, “not only does it turn them against a particular movie, it turns them against the store.”

Clearly, it’s up to the renter to exercise caution. One common land mine is the big tease: Sex sells, so it should come as no surprise that video distributors play up the T&A.; But that can be a disservice to the film.

Marketed as a “Showgirls"-esque skin-fest, the 1995 Miramax film “Exotica” turns out to be much more than another stripper movie.

“Picture Bride,” another Miramax release from last year, takes a quasi-documentary look at a young Japanese woman sent to Hawaii to marry a countryman she has never seen. With a naked woman in the foreground and a couple embracing under a waterfall in the back, the box art makes it look sexy, but it’s not.

“That movie wasn’t sexy or romantic at all,” says Rebecca Fisher, a clerk at Seattle Rain City Video. “It was good, but it wasn’t sexy.” “If you look closely at the two people embracing in the background, both are Caucasian,” says Rain City’s Franklin.

Evergreen Entertainment also took some liberties with “What Happened Was . . . ,” a dialogue-heavy 1994 movie about an awkward first date; on the cover, Karen Sillas strikes a Vargas pose.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Franklin says. “It’s like colorization. Some people look at it and say, ‘Ooh, it looks like it would be sexy’ and rent it. Some people get pissed and other people like it because it’s a good movie.”

Another common practice is to tone down gay themes. Franklin complains that the box art for 1995’s “Priest” soft-pedals its gay angle, marketing it as a “True Confessions” clone. Other renters have been unpleasantly surprised by “Go Fish,” a low-budget black-and-white lesbian-themed movie released in 1994. Its softly hued box sports two near-nude shots of the protagonist but none of her lover.

By contrast, the cover for New Line Home Video’s “Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love” makes the lesbian aspect of the story clear. Hallmark Entertainment declined to comment on “Go Fish.”

“If you ask me, that’s deceptive,” says a South Pasadena Wherehouse video clerk. “I can’t tell you how many men have rented that and been disappointed. They even read the back and see it’s about lesbians, but that fits into their fantasy.” “People are actually angry when they return it,” Fisher says.