Silver Screen Classics Get Star Treatment in Re-Release to Video

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Thomas K. Arnold is editor in chief of Video Store magazine, a weekly trade publication serving the home video industry

One of the upcoming holiday season's biggest video releases will arrive in stores Oct. 27, priced for direct sale to consumers and backed by a $20-million marketing campaign.

A television and print ad blitz, five cross-promotions and rebate offers, and a national consumer sweepstakes are all in the works.

In itself, none of this is unusual. Any time a studio releases a big theatrical hit at a low sell-through price, it's common practice to pull out all the stops--particularly when the goal is to sell 8 million copies or more.

But in this case, the movie that's getting the star treatment is "Gone With the Wind," which stormed the box office way back in 1939 and has been available on video since 1985, albeit it at a steep $89.98.

The hoopla is about the epic Civil War drama's video re-release at a more affordable $19.98--and underscores a growing trend among movie studios to market classic films in the same league as newer "event" movies fresh from a $100-million or more theatrical run.

"Studios appear to be bumping up against the limit of the number of new films that can go direct to sell-through in a given year and still turn a respectable profit," said video industry analyst Tom Adams of Adams Media Research in Carmel Valley, Calif. "Catalog titles, on the other hand, are pure profit, less manufacturing and marketing expenses, and really represent the best chance for a bottom line home run."

Indeed, retailers say that in the last few years, they've seen a glut of new sell-through releases. Prices have fallen, and profits are eroding. But companies are seeing greater opportunities in classic movies, thanks in large part to increased exposure for old movies on cable and as a result of such efforts as the American Film Institute's 100 best movies list.

A study commissioned by Warner Home Video, which is partnering with MGM Home Entertainment to market "Gone With the Wind," shows that sales of catalog titles grew 16.3% last year, to 124 million units. At mass merchants such as Wal-Mart and Target Stores, the study found, catalog titles account for 66% of total video inventories, but generate 75% of profits.

"Catalog is what keeps us in business," said John Thrasher, vice president of video purchasing for Tower Records/Video, a 110-store chain based in West Sacramento. "Of our overall sell-through revenue, 70% is catalog--and it's really nice to have special treatments for really significant films, like 'Gone With the Wind' and 'Vertigo' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

"There's a whole new generation of film buyers out there, and they are getting more exposure to classic movies than ever before. . . . You do a little channel surfing, see a clip of a film you like and, if it's reasonably priced, you buy it."

The concept of marketing classic movies on video is not new. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Walt Disney Co.'s video distribution arm, has made a fortune from periodically re-releasing its animated classics, dating back to 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," for a limited time and then placing them on moratorium.

And in 1989, MGM Home Entertainment released a 50th anniversary edition of "The Wizard of Oz" that sold over 4 million units "in a sell-through market that wasn't nearly as mature as it is today," recalled President David Bishop.

But such campaigns have become larger and more frequent. Many observers attribute the escalation to Bill Mechanic, who was Disney's video chief before being hired to helm Fox studios in 1994. The catalyst, many say, was Fox's astounding success with the three "Star Wars" movies, which were repackaged and re-released in August 1995 and, within five months, had sold a collective 25 million units.

"It was a 20-year-old property that was in distribution at the time, so the whole challenge for us was to make it important again," recalled Bruce Pfander, then senior vice president of marketing at Fox and now chief of domestic home video for Universal Studios.

Fox spent $15 million on TV and print ads and hooking up with Kellogg Co. for a series of cereal rebates and cross-promotions to sell the trilogy. The focus of the campaign, Pfander said, was to tap into a new generation of consumers by "bringing it forward into the 1990s." Fox settled on a new merchandising and packaging look "that zeroed in on Darth Vader as an icon," Pfander said, while reminding older consumers of the importance of "Star Wars" as a groundbreaking science-fiction franchise.

"We had expected to move somewhere between 8 million and 12 million units, on the high side," Pfander said, "and within five months, we had more than doubled that."

Those sales figures prompted other studios to take a second look at their own movie vaults, and before long other vintage films began getting beefed-up promotional pushes, including MGM's James Bond collection, a series of Shirley Temple films from Fox, and Paramount Home Video's "The Godfather" trilogy.

The key to classic movie marketing campaigns, studio executives agree, is to position the video release as an "event."

"You treat them like a new release," MGM's Bishop said. "If you position key catalog titles correctly, people will buy them."

But Bishop notes that there are only 20 or 30 movies that "have withstood the test of time, films people keep coming back to again and again."

"A lot of video purchasers are not unlike book collectors," said Steve Feldstein, vice president of marketing communications for Fox Consumer Products. "They display their videos on a shelf, and it tells something about their personalities. 'Star Wars' belongs on that shelf, 'Sound of Music' belongs there, 'Gone With the Wind' belongs there--just like Dickens and Hemingway belong on a shelf of classic books."

Even for films that are a notch or two below true "classic" status, video marketers are upping the stakes. On Sept. 15, Universal Studios Home Video will release the 25th anniversary edition of "American Graffiti" at a suggested retail price of $19.98. The video will include a 10-minute "making of" featurette and come in a metallic silver case along with a music CD.

A month later, on Oct. 13, Universal will release the 20th anniversary edition of "Animal House," also at $19.98.

"Over the last few years, you've seen an incredible amount of product on the shelves, so marketing these films has become more and more difficult," Pfander said. "One of the best ways to make them stand out is to add value through special features."

Fox is taking a similar approach with its upcoming reissue of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (Sept. 15, $14.98).

"We found two rarely seen songs that had been deleted from the production," Feldstein said. "They'll both be on the video. You've got a huge fan base, and that's what they want."

The American Film Institute's 100 movies campaign, which kicked off earlier this year has had an effect. In the week following the June 16 CBS-TV special in which the top films were announced, the Video Software Dealers Assn.'s VidTrac tracking service found rentals of classic titles on the list had nearly doubled.

"Citizen Kane," No. 1 on the AFI list, was rented more than 20,000 times the week after the special aired.

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