SEQUELS TO STAR IN DIRECT-TO-VIDEO PREMIERES

It will be like a multiplex in the aisles when an unprecedented number of direct-to-video movies debut in supermarkets late this year.Retailers will have an opportunity to showcase a cast of highly familiar characters from established franchised properties. Making their return are the Lion King and an Indian princess in Disney's "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" and "Pocahontas: Journey to a New World."

It will be like a multiplex in the aisles when an unprecedented number of direct-to-video movies debut in supermarkets late this year.

Retailers will have an opportunity to showcase a cast of highly familiar characters from established franchised properties. Making their return are the Lion King and an Indian princess in Disney's "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" and "Pocahontas: Journey to a New World." These titles promise to be among the fourth-quarter's biggest direct-to-video hits. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Burbank, Calif., will release "Pocahontas" Aug. 25 and "Lion King" Oct. 27.

"One of the most exciting things that's happened in video in a long time is to have 'The Lion King' sequel coming out direct to video," said Matt Feinstein, vice president of Marbles Entertainment, Los Angeles, who operates leased-space departments in Vons and Lucky supermarkets. "We're real excited that we can get the first chance to present it to our customers."

Buena Vista's advertising support for the videos also will spur retailer buying. "I've been guaranteed by [Buena Vista] reps that there'll be an ad blitz 30 to 45 days before the title and we've got co-op funds. Hopefully, it will sell as well as 'The Little Mermaid,' " said Craig Hill, video specialist for Springdale, Ark.-based Harps Food Stores.

"We've ordered fairly heavy on the 'Pocahontas' sequel, even though there's not a lot of profit. [Titles like that] generate interest and traffic in the stores," he said.

Direct-to-video offers supermarket retailers a significant merchandising opportunity, according to Dan Capone, director of marketing for family entertainment at Warner Home Video, Burbank, Calif.

"Supermarkets have the opportunity to cause immediate excitement," he commented. "You put a rack up with really cool characters from well-known franchises and the same kids who want this cereal and those cookies will want the video."

This fourth quarter no fewer than nine full-length direct-to-video sequels to popular family and children's films will be released for sell-through. Warner has a heavy slate of sequels timed to take advantage of the gift-giving season. Released last month were "Dennis the Menace Strikes Again," and "Little Men," a sequel to the classic "Little Women." Nov. 10, "Richie Rich's Christmas" will become available.

Sept. 22, Warner will release "Addams Family Reunion." Paramount Pictures, Hollywood, released the first two titles in the Addams Family franchise in theaters and on video.

Capone said Warner was able to secure the rights to this title. "It's great live action, similar to the first two films, with the same type of macabre humor, but made for the whole family." The new installment stars Tim Curry and Daryl Hannah.

Columbia TriStar Home Video, Culver City, Calif., has secured rights to the "The Swan Princess III and the Mystery of the Enchanted Treasure," which streeted Aug. 4. The first two titles in the Swan Princess franchise were released by Turner Home Entertainment, now part of Warner.

Suzanne Blouchard, director of marketing for Columbia TriStar, said it doesn't matter which studio releases the property. The important elements are the strength of the franchise and its characters, particularly with children's products. "I think consumers are just reaching for what they know and love," she said.

Blouchard noted that a cross promotion with Kids Cuisine frozen dinners will be of particular interest to supermarkets. It will allow the title to be positioned in the frozen-food aisle and merchandised from shippers. Each Kids Cuisine package contains a mail-in rebate offer.

Sept. 22, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Beverly Hills, Calif., will release "Casper Meets Wendy," the third installment of the combination live-action and animation feature-length series. The first direct-to-video sequel, "Casper: A Spirited Beginning," also from Fox, sold 5.5 million units, according to Hosea Belcher, vice president of marketing at Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. The first theatrical movie was originally distributed by Universal Studios Home Video, Universal City, Calif.

Fox also plans a number of supermarket-friendly cross promotions in support of the title, including a tie-in with General Mills, which will produce 3 million tagged advertisements in addition to the $6 million advertising budget that Fox has allocated. Also planned is a Hershey's freestanding insert that includes a video rebate with purchase and other offers. Fox's Belcher said that 52 million households will receive the offer during September and October.

Universal will revisit its evergreen franchise, "The Land Before Time," with a sixth installment late in the fourth quarter, said Charlie Katz, senior vice president of marketing. The studio also is using a direct-to-video sequel to revive a successful older franchise, "An American Tail." The first two titles, 1986's "An American Tail" and 1991's "An American Tail: Fievel Goes West," both of which received theatrical releases and have been on moratorium for six years, were re-released to retail Aug. 11. Katz said "An American Tail 3: The Treasure of Manhattan Island" will street late in the fourth quarter.

In addition to feature-length films, many television properties will extend their franchises over the next few months using direct-to-video programming. "Teletubbies," the PBS phenomenon that has become wildly popular with toddlers, will make its video debut with two exclusive-to-video releases.

The industry has a mixed opinion on the overall impression direct-to-video has on consumers and whether they can recognize the distinction from the theatrical hit.

"Consumers know the difference between theatrical and direct-to-video, despite what the studios claim," said Larry Bigelow, owner of Video Consultants, Brooklyn Park, Minn. Bigelow buys videos for Erickson's Diversified, Hudson, Wis. "A direct-to-video marketing campaign doesn't get the job done. Nothing beats the newspaper advertising by theaters for a theatrical release."

Additionally, noted Bigelow, even the supermarket-friendly promotions that studio executives tout don't always cut it. "Supermarkets are so busy and very often the video departments are run by the service counter," he said. "If you make a promotion too complicated or involved or intricate it loses its punch. We don't participate unless it is really quite simple."

Belcher said consumers associate direct-to-video sequels with their theatrical predecessors. Consumers also assume that the sequel had a theatrical release, giving the title more stature.

"A lot of times people think it has had a theatrical release. It really does have that halo effect. People think 'I must have missed it,' " said Belcher.

"We don't position things to the consumer as direct to video," said Katz of Universal. "We say it's a quality feature-length film that was created as great family entertainment."