CHARACTER-DRIVEN

Retailers are shining the video spotlight on Bert and Ernie, Barbie and Cinderella.With the recent proliferation of non-theatrical sequels to hit theatrical releases, such as Disney's "Cinderella II: Dreams Come True," which hit stores in February, strong television-brand recognition from titles like "Bert & Ernie's Word Play," and toy tie-ins like the upcoming "Barbie as Rapunzel," children's direct-to-video

Retailers are shining the video spotlight on Bert and Ernie, Barbie and Cinderella.

With the recent proliferation of non-theatrical sequels to hit theatrical releases, such as Disney's "Cinderella II: Dreams Come True," which hit stores in February, strong television-brand recognition from titles like "Bert & Ernie's Word Play," and toy tie-ins like the upcoming "Barbie as Rapunzel," children's direct-to-video no longer plays second fiddle to theatrical hits.

The direct-to-video children's category grew 11% in total VHS and DVD sell-through sales in the grocery channel this year through March 23, according to VideoScan, Los Angeles. The data from VideoScan, a service of VNU and ACNielsen, exclude figures from Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark.

Retailers said they have become more bullish on direct-to-video children's titles.

Doug's Supermarket, Warroad, Minn., recently expanded the entire store by 40%, which included a 40% expansion of the video-rental department. Chuck Lindner, general manager, said the store is in the process of adding a family section next to its comprehensive children's video-rental set.

"[Children's] direct-to-video is successful for us, and one of the reasons is the size we've donated to children's movies," Lindner said.

Doug's Supermarket offers 600 catalogue children's titles, and roughly half of them are direct-to-video releases, he said.

"Strong television ratings help to sell direct-to-video releases, and direct-to-video sequels to major theatricals often produce significant sales," said Bill Bryant, vice president of sales, grocery and drug, Ingram Entertainment, La Vergne, Tenn.

Children's non-theatrical fare doesn't suffer the same perception of inferior quality that burdens some mainstream direct-to-video titles.

Brian Hurley, video manager, Lowes Foods, Winston-Salem, N.C., said "kids don't know the difference [between a theatrical release and direct-to-video]."

Other retailers agreed.

"Kids don't care if it is 'The Land Before Time 8 or 9,"' said Dennis Shaver, president, Shaver's, Boise, Idaho. "If there is a recognizable title, they tend to be extremely popular."

Many of the franchises, like "The Lion King," have a built-in perception of high quality, he said.

Others pointed to technological improvements as driving factors in direct-to-video growth.

"Audiences have gotten to expect a certain level of animation from what they see theatrically, and it wasn't financially feasible to do it [on video] up until now," said Glenn Ross, president, family home entertainment, Artisan, Los Angeles, which will street "Barbie as Rapunzel" in October.

Alan Fergurson, vice president of sales, Sony Music Distribution, New York, told SN, "I think all of us in this business have put more emphasis on quality programming, and not necessarily just for theatrical release."

Sony's "Bert & Ernie's Word Play" streets June 11.

Although some retailers said children's DVD continues to lag behind VHS, Gordon Ho, vice president, brand marketing animation, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, said the company's most recent video premieres "saw great sales on DVD."

While many of the direct-to-video titles for children do not have the sales impact of a title like "Shrek," Shaver pointed out that they help "keep the department fresh, and they certainly help in between the Shreks and Harry Potters."