Supermarket video specialists expecting a return to business as usual in 2001 may instead find it harder than ever to plan for the future.
With market traditions dropping like dot-coms throughout 2000, many in the industry feel all bets are off in forecasting a video business model that has progressed from evolution to revolution.
"In trying to predict next year, you're really looking into a muddy crystal ball," said Kirk Kirkpatrick, vice president of marketing, WaxWorks/VideoWorks, Owensboro, Ky. "There are no rules any more. If someone had told me last January, 'Here is what's going to happen this year,' I wouldn't have believed it."
January shows some evidence of the new market trends.
"This January is so different from those in past years," Kirkpatrick said. "It used to be the biggest month of the year because all of the big summer blockbusters would come to video then. But now the windows have all closed, and we get the titles so much earlier."
This abbreviated theater-to-video window temporarily left a January product shortage. Then that vacuum proved appealing for some studios, which stepped in to benefit retailers.
Breaking with tradition, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Burbank, Calif., has scheduled the summer animated hit "Dinosaur" in January. The over-$135-million-grossing film arrives Jan. 30 at sell-through pricing on both VHS and DVD. In the past this product has been slotted in February, as with "Tarzan" last year.
"We've had people asking for 'Dinosaur' ever since it opened in theaters," said Theresa Daniels, manager, McMaken Super Market's McVideo, Brookville, Ohio. "Most Disney titles are big, but this one is so different from anything they've done that we think it's really going to take off."
The month's only other $100 million-topper, "What Lies Beneath," arrives Jan. 30 at VHS rental pricing -- another departure from tradition, which had pegged that level for sell-through candidacy -- from DreamWorks Home Entertainment, Glendale, Calif. This title, January's biggest with a box office over $150 million, was initially rumored for December release, then penciled in by some analysts on Jan. 2, a date that eventually went to "Hollow Man."
"We'd been wondering at first whether DreamWorks was going to get 'What Lies Beneath' into the fourth quarter or not," said Paul Richardville, director of video/photo, Reasor's, Tahlequah, Okla. "It's a good movie, and it would have done well even against 'Hollow Man."'
The latter film, from Columbia TriStar Home Video, Culver City, Calif., scared up $73 million theatrically for its state-of-the-art treatment of an invisible-man yarn.
Filling out the month, studios have scheduled moderate hits as well as other rental and sell-through entries. And more theatrical product from the fall and holiday season will be arriving shortly thereafter.
Columbia, for instance, also has the limited release "Under Suspicion" for VHS rental in January, toplining Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman in a suspenseful story about a murder investigation.
But Columbia's most intriguing item may be what company President Jeff Kaplan called its "Anti-Valentine's Day promotion," a collection of 10 sell-through titles (like "Love Stinks," "End of the Affair" and "So I Married an Axe Murderer") that are "love stories gone wrong, for the bitter single people."
Arriving later from the studio will be the blockbuster "Charlie's Angels."
"We don't yet know when that will be placed, or whether it will be sell-through," said John Reina, Columbia vice president of domestic sales, sell-through. Lending strength to the latter possibility is its broad appeal. "Theatrically it has had such a mixed audience, covering all ages."
Buena Vista has announced both "Coyote Ugly" ($60 million) and "The Kid" ($70 million) for VHS rental on Jan. 16, targeting different markets. The first, a music-heavy romance from action film producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Top Gun," "Armageddon"), is for teenagers, while the second, a Disney comedy with Bruce Willis, is for family audiences.
Universal Studios Home Video, Universal City, Calif., has the cheerleader comedy "Bring It On" ($67 million) and the kid-friendly "Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle" ($26 million), with its computer-generated leads co-starring with Robert DeNiro, for VHS rental on Jan. 23.
" 'Bring It On' will be a winner, of course," said one small-chain specialist, "but we're looking forward to 'Bullwinkle' too, since there's a curiosity factor that's greater than its performance in theaters would indicate."
Universal will also have a major treat for retailers -- and a strong sell-through contender -- later in the year with the video release of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which opened the theatrical holiday season in spectacular fashion.
Paramount Home Video, Hollywood, will have "Wonder Boys" ($18 million), with Michael Douglas, for VHS rental on Jan. 9. This follows its current theatrical re-release, an unusual move initiated "because we recognize that for various reasons it under-performed at the box office," said Martin Blythe, Paramount vice president of publicity. "We dated 'Wonder Boys' in January," he said, "to capitalize on critics' end of year Top 10 lists and Golden Globe nominations."
Also in January, Paramount will release a tape commemorating the first season of the popular "Survivor" TV series.
"It contains almost half new material and there's a lot of behind the scenes explanations that consumers will find amazing," Blythe said. "The video's $14.95 price point should also be appealing to grocery."
On Feb. 20 the studio will release Spike Lee's "The Original Kings of Comedy" ($37 million) on rental VHS and day-and-date DVD.
A likely later sell-through release from Paramount is another theatrical hit, the animated "Rugrats in Paris: The Movie."
Warner Home Video, Burbank, Calif., has the John Travolta sci-fi film "Battlefield Earth" ($21 million) for VHS rental on Jan. 16. And on Jan. 23, at sell-through on both VHS and DVD, is the limited theatrical release "MVP: Most Valuable Primate," a family comedy about a soccer-playing chimpanzee from director Robert Vince of the "Air Bud" series.
The most eagerly awaited Warner title, however, may be Clint Eastwood's "Space Cowboys" (over $85 million), which some analysts expect in March.
MGM Home Entertainment, Santa Monica, Calif., begins the year with the Jan. 2 releases of "Autumn in New York" ($37 million), a romance with Richard Gere and Winona Ryder, and "Crime & Punishment in Suburbia," a teen-oriented thriller. Both are VHS rental with day-and-date DVD.
A&E Television Networks, New York, will have a variety of titles at sell-through pricing during the first half of the year. Many of them are TV-derived.
"We're always looking for successful TV series that fit our brand," said Kate Winn, A&E director, marketing home video. These will include the first volumes of "Space 1999" in January and "Thunderbirds Are Go" in February, as well as more episodes of "The Prisoner" in March and "The Avengers" in April.
Also coming from A&E are new productions of "The Great Gatsby" (with Mira Sorvino and Paul Rudd), "Catherine the Great," "Lorna Doone" and "The Magnificent Ambersons."
Much more product will be arriving from all home video sources, of course, but it remains to be seen whether it will all coalesce into an orderly release schedule.