Supermarket video departments remain firmly committed to renting R-rated videos, but they are finding various ways to avoid offending customers who may object to material deemed unsuitable for a supermarket setting.
Chains interviewed for an SN survey report that they have not recently faced undue pressure from religious groups not to carry R-rated titles. That pressure reportedly provoked Glen's Markets, Gaylord, Mich., and Meijer Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich., to exit the video-rental business.
"Our stores certainly do carry R-rated titles," said Larry Bigelow, owner of Video Consultants, Brooklyn Park, Minn., which buys videos for Erickson Diversified Corp., a 19-store chain based in Hudson, Wis.
"The other supermarkets I've been in do carry R-rated titles as well. If a grocery store did not carry R-titles, they would have a hard time making it financially," Bigelow added.
Several chains in the so-called Bible Belt said they have been carrying R-rated video titles with few objections from religious groups. "We've been doing it for 10 years and will continue to do so," said Renee Clay Thomas, video supervisor at Hardy, Ark.-based Clay Stores, with 21 video stores.
"The only movie that I can think of where we had people objecting was 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' " Clay Thomas said. "We did buy it. People complained. We took it out of the stores."
"As of now we have had no pressure from religious groups or pressure groups at all. Part of it is we don't put anything racy on the shelves," said a vice president with a 200-store grocery chain with 47 video departments in the Southeast, who asked to remain unidentified.
But supermarkets that carry R-titles say they have to be careful that some of these videos do not offend the sensibilities of shoppers.
"Supermarkets' business is selling groceries. They don't want to lose a customer because of an R-rated title. They don't want to jeopardize the business of someone who is spending thousands of dollars a year on groceries," Bigelow said.
"There is a title coming out in April called 'Bastard Out of Carolina,' that has graphic rape scenes. It has to do with the sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl. I would not carry that title," he said.
Another current video title, "Trainspotting," also had a controversial reception when it was released in theaters. (It is about a group of friends in Scotland who are addicted to heroin.) So far, retailers report that it has not caused problems for them at rental and the stores stocking it report good initial business.
On the other hand, "Kids," a movie about teenagers featuring drugs, violence and sex, provoked strong complaints from parents. "I took it off the shelf. I made a mistake by bringing it in. We made some friends by taking it off the shelf," Bigelow added.
"Another movie I passed on was called 'Priest,' which concerned a homosexual priest," he said. "Because of the subject matter I chose not to bring it in. We carried 'The Birdcage' [another title with a gay story] -- that was done with comedy and there wasn't a member of the church involved."
A manager at a Michigan chain, who asked to remain unidentified, said she was hesitant about displaying certain R-rated videos. "There have been times when we haven't put one out because of a cover being too explicit," she said. "Probably the most recent example was 'Striptease.' We did not rent 'Showgirls' either." Religious groups did not directly coerce her to withhold these titles, she said.
" 'Striptease' we handled without any problems or complaints. 'Showgirls' had two versions. We bought the softer version of it," Bigelow said.
Many of the studios now release videos with two different box covers, retailers say. Video departments make sure that the box art and posters they select are relatively innocuous.
A video coordinator for an Indiana food chain said that when faced with a choice, she always chooses the box art that is least offensive. "Our stores are in Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. We've got a lot of churches in our communities. We try to stay more toward family-oriented movies."
"We currently bring in R-rated videos with conservative box art. We do not buy NC-17 or nonrated versions," said Heidi Samuelson, video consultant to Mason Bros., a wholesaler grocer based in Wadena, Minn. "The R's rent very well." To anticipate complaints from parents, the stores she services place parental advisory stickers on objectionable R-rated videos.
Popular R-rated rental titles currently include "A Time To Kill," "The Rock," "Tin Cup" and "Fargo."
Mandy Budreau, video buyer for G&R Felpausch Co., based in Hastings, Mich., said, "We look at the box art and a lot of times that determines whether we carry it. We are pretty conservative." Some G&R Felpausch stores covered up the box art on "Striptease," but still rented it. The chain did not rent "Showgirls" because, Budreau said, the "tamer" box art wasn't conservative enough.
"We did not carry 'Priest.' I thought the box art was deceptive. I don't think the description of the movie gave people a fair understanding of what they were going to see when they watched the movie," Budreau said.
"We probably have more people complain about being deceived by the box art once they've seen the movie. I've told the studios. That's why they are coming out with choices of box art," Budreau said.
Nonetheless, some retailers think the "tamer" box art goes too far in the conservative direction. "Taming a box art cover is not in the best interests of all customers," Bigelow pointed out, "because people who want to watch an R-rated video are looking for a certain kind of box art."
However, the vice president with the 200-store Southeastern chain commented, "If it's too flashy we will not carry the video. We are a family grocery store, not a video store. We are in the Bible Belt. We are supposed to maintain a family environment." Nonetheless, the chain carried "Showgirls" and "Striptease" with "no problem at all."
"There's a whole group of erotica, Penthouse exotics, that we would never consider. We don't even see that section. The video industry is pretty familiar with what grocery would carry. 'Bound' is coming out. It is a major motion picture. As long as the box art is not too racy. We will flag it with a sticker, to let the customer know that this video contains mature subject matter," the vice president said.
Retailers said the positioning of the video store in relation to the grocery store is an important factor in terms of R-rated video selection. "Freestanding stores are less conservative to some extent. If the video store is attached to the supermarket we'd be more conservative in our selection. We get more families in," Budreau of G&R Felpausch said.
While studios are helping supermarket video departments merchandise videos in a family-friendly setting, departments are also finding ways to control who ultimately rents (if not who watches) videos.
"Our system allows the parents to say whether or not their underage children can rent an R-rated movie," said Budreau. But ultimately, censorship begins in the home, Bigelow said. "If parents don't want children to see certain titles, they should control that at home. For every grocery store that goes out of the R-rated business, there are going to be one or two video stores that carry the titles anyway."