BEING THERE

A pressing question for today's supermarket video buyers is, with all apologies to Shakespeare, to B or not to B? B movie, that is.B movies are widely defined as titles grossing under $20 million to $25 million at the box office. However, many gross significantly less than that, with a growing number going direct to video, sometimes with an intermediate showing on cable television.With more and more

A pressing question for today's supermarket video buyers is, with all apologies to Shakespeare, to B or not to B? B movie, that is.

B movies are widely defined as titles grossing under $20 million to $25 million at the box office. However, many gross significantly less than that, with a growing number going direct to video, sometimes with an intermediate showing on cable television.

With more and more money and shelf space devoted to A titles and games, supermarket video departments have had to seriously think about cutting back on B titles. The issue has become a serious one -- far from making much ado about nothing.

When asked if they planned to purchase B movies this year, 58% of the retailers surveyed in SN's State of the Industry Report said no. The 42% that planned to invest in the category said they would be selective and buy only quality products at a good price.

"There are a lot of B's out there that are trash and we're trying to stay away from those and just go for the high-quality B's," said Sandy French, video coordinator at Thrifty Food Stores, Burlington, Wash.

Steve Gretzinger, video coordinator at Angeli Foods in Iron River, Mich., said he would be tougher when selecting B movies. "We'll be looking a lot more at the stories. Before it was just the box art, the glamorous things. Now we'll be looking for the little pearls," he said.

Besides becoming more selective in choosing B titles, retailers told SN they are tending to favor family and science-fiction films from the B category.

"Occasionally we pick up a B title that will do all right," said Carl F. Johnson, video specialist for Harp's Food Stores, Springdale, Ark., who agreed B family and science-fiction titles are holding their own much better than other B titles. "There aren't enough [family and science-fiction titles] in the A market. You don't see much product like that. That's why there's still a B market for them," Johnson added.

"Before, martial arts were hot. Now, though, B family movies and B science fiction are doing really well. Good science-fiction movies, if they have a story, they're renting off the walls. We buy pretty deep on them," Gretzinger said.

Dick Sizemore, general merchandise and health and beauty care buyer-merchandiser for Pay Less Supermarkets, Anderson, Ind., said despite the limited amount of space his store has for B titles, children's movies have maintained their market.

"It's a clear trend that there's a market for family videos, and it should be strong for the next few years," said Eric Parkinson, president of Hemdale Home Video, Los Angeles.

"With the degradation of television and cable programming, many shows are not appropriate for children. There's too much hardcore for television to act as a babysitter," he said. "This gives children's video an edge, especially at grocery. "The other strong area is science fiction, where the fans are real fanatics," Parkinson said. "It's still a profitable genre from a rental standpoint. There are not a lot of those movies being made."

Furthermore, retailers said B movies cannot be completely ignored, as some customers require variety beyond major releases.

"I buy B movies for variety." said Karen Welch, video buyer for the three video departments of SuperValu/Clyde Evans Markets in Lima, Ohio. "I try and find out as much as I can before I order it. If it looks like it has a good story and box art, I consider it. You have people who come in every day, and obviously, there are not enough A titles to keep them happy."

Larry Hage, regional supervisor for Ray's Food Place, Brookings, Ore., asked, "When all the A's are out, what are you left with? If that logic makes any sense, I would say the [B-movie rentals] probably are necessary." He said, however, he still buys deeper into "hot" movies if he has extra money to spend.

Parkinson of Hemdale said other B-category titles, like action, horror, martial arts and erotic thrillers, are suffering for a variety of reasons.

"Horror and action can't compete. Horror films aren't politically correct. Many of the action films and the martial arts have the same plots again and again," he explained. "As for erotic thrillers, once you've seen some of these stars in bed, you don't need to see them over and over."

The proliferation of hit theatrical titles over the last year has made it doubly difficult for low-budget products to compete for retailers' dollars in a market of blockbuster releases.

"We'll be buying less B movies and concentrate more on A titles. You look at the movie listings and you'll see there are a lot of big titles coming out in the next year," said Johnson. "As a supermarket, that's where our main draw is, the major A titles."

Said Hage of Ray's, "I don't have much money in my budget for full-priced B titles. We pick up a certain amount of them after their street date, when we can pick them up really cheap, and we run them as new arrivals, instead of as new releases."

"For our particular market B movies do not do well. We order almost 100% A titles," said Barry Streetman, president of Streetman's IGA in Konawa, Okla.

Some retailers, however, said they make their B-title buying decisions based on the A titles coming out during a given month.

"If there are a lot of A titles in a month, I cut back on the B's," said Welch.

Tammy De Cloedt, video merchandising associate for Martin's Super Markets, South Bend, Ind., agreed. "Granted we want the A titles first. But depending on what we budgeted for the month, we pick our B titles accordingly."

Games are another consideration in the tempest of today's supermarket video climate, and they, too, are gnawing away at B-movie monies at retail.

"We've always bought really heavily in B movies. Now it looks like we'll be sinking a lot more money into games in the next year -- interactive software -- whether it be computer or Sega or CD-ROM," said Gretzinger. "It looks like the money will come from the B-title pool."

Streetman agreed. "We've definitely increased our purchase of games, so that would cut into any [excess monies to spend]," he said.

Some video production houses and distributors who specialize in B movies have begun cutting their prices in an effort to compete against A titles. By increasing the chances for profitability on their movies, they sometimes make their titles more attractive.

"I have noticed a cut in price on B's, but they're still too pricey for what you get because it is a B title and not as well known," said Johnson. "Retailers have realized limited awareness titles aren't profitable. And a bad movie is still a bad movie, regardless of price. Crap is crap at any price," said Parkinson. "The level of sophistication of retailers is growing. They know what movies are profitable."