TOONED IN

Supermarkets can expect a jammed pack of animation to move youthful consumers and enliven video sales.The entertainment industry is ramping up the amount of animated product it produces. This includes feature theatrical releases from major studios other than Disney, such as Warner Bros.' "Space Jam," a steady stream of direct-to-video features and other lines of nontheatrical titles, usually made

Supermarkets can expect a jammed pack of animation to move youthful consumers and enliven video sales.

The entertainment industry is ramping up the amount of animated product it produces. This includes feature theatrical releases from major studios other than Disney, such as Warner Bros.' "Space Jam," a steady stream of direct-to-video features and other lines of nontheatrical titles, usually made first for television.

The result is more sales and rentals for supermarket video programs, but also some hard choices for buyers faced with a formidable array of unfamiliar series and characters. "With the number of studios jumping into it, and the more I have to choose from, the happier I am, for sure," said Randy Weddington, video specialist at Harps Food Stores, Springdale, Ark. "Our sell-through has been on a growth curve for the last nine months now and I see no signs of it slowing down," he said.

"For us, it is an opportunity for more sell-through," said Bob Glisch, vice president of operations at Mega Mart, Oak Creek, Wis. "On the right-priced videos, the customer appeal has been very strong. It is good entertainment, so it has been selling very well for us," he said.

This spring, Warner Home Video, Burbank, Calif., will go head-to-head with Disney animated features with "Space Jam," which combines the Looney Tunes characters with live action, starring Michael Jordan. It hits the street March 11. Later in the year, animated features are expected in theaters from Twentieth Century Fox, Beverly Hills, Calif., and the DreamWorks SKG studio in Los Angeles.

How and when Paramount Home Video, Hollywood, will release the sleeper teen hit, "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America," is unknown as the title is still playing in theaters. Industry sources believe it will probably go sell-through, but because of its controversial content and the industry's past difficulty selling videos to the teen market, this is by no means certain.

In the direct-to-video field, retailers praised the marketing efforts of Universal Studios Home Video, Universal City, Calif., for "The Land Before Time IV: Journey Through the Mists," which released in mid-December.

Meanwhile, Disney through its video subsidiary Buena Vista Home Video, Burbank, Calif., shows no signs of surrendering its dominance of the animated category. The studio has slated two re-issues, "Bambi," Feb. 4 and "Sleeping Beauty," Sept. 16, last year's theatrical hit, "Hunchback of Notre Dame," March 4 and the previously unreleased "Fun and Fancy Free," on July 15. An animated release from the studio's Miramax line was "The Thief and the Cobbler" Jan. 7.

Direct-to-video animated titles from Disney will include "Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin," Aug. 5 and, according to trade sources, "Beauty and the Beast Christmas," by the end of the year. Additionally, "The Little Mermaid," a title much requested at retail, will be in theaters this summer, foreshadowing a second video release sometime in the near future, said sources.

Disney is also active on the children's live-action front with "101 Dalmatians" (no release date yet) and the direct-to-video "Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves" (March 18). A remake of "That Darn Cat" is now in theaters.

The number of nontheatrical titles continues to proliferate, although sales of these are suffering because there is so much good theatrical product being released on video, said Tom Adams, president of Adams Media Research, Carmel Valley, Calif. Children's share of total nontheatrical video sales has slipped from 57.9% in 1994 to 45.8% in 1996, he said.

"The growth on [the] feature side has pretty well put a cap on the nontheatrical side. That's good for everybody except the suppliers of the nontheatrical children's product," he said.

Among the many newer titles and lines in this category are "Corduroy," "Dragon Flyz," "Sky Dancers," "The Legend of the North Wind," "Mumfie," "Star Wars Animated Classics" and "Mighty Ducks: The Movie." Continuing animated lines include "Peanuts," "Winnie the Pooh," "Busy World of Richard Scarry," "Johnny Quest," "Beginner's Bible" and "Beavis and Butt-Head."

The other studios and video suppliers "are looking to get a piece of what Disney has built up," said Adams. "But it also is because the economics make great sense." For example, an animated feature that costs $10 million to produce only needs to sell 2 million units at $10 each to earn a nice profit, he said. "You can make a lot of money on very modest sales figures," he said.

"We saw more animated features last year than the year before, and there will probably be more this year. It definitely is a growing trend," said Adams.

And it's a trend that couldn't make supermarket video executives happier.

"Anything animated does really well for us," said Jamie Molitor, director of video operations at Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo. "The more sophisticated the animation becomes, the more entertaining it is for the whole family, not just the children. It is a good category for us," she said.

"It's encouraging that there is some new animation on the market," said Rick Ang, buyer at Video Mart, Sacramento, Calif., which racks video departments in 17 Bel Air supermarkets in the Sacramento area. "But we are just going to have to wait and see how the public is going to accept it. There is just so much," he said.

"Even though there is more product than we could ever hope to do anything with, it is still an exciting business to be in," said Clifford Feiock, video coordinator at Nash Finch Co., Minneapolis "We are always interested in children's titles because we are a family-oriented business," said Denise Darnell, video supervisor at Southeast Foods, Monroe, La. Attractive children's titles build traffic in the video departments, she noted. "Once we get the children in there, we get the parents too," she said.

The full-length features are best because parents look for videos that will occupy the kids for longer than the 30 to 40 minute shorts, she said. They also are a better value when rented at the "new arrival" rates.

The trend for putting children's tapes in clamshell packaging also spurs sales, said Darnell. "It looks like more of a collectible item. That helps tremendously," she said. "Animated children's videos are good for supermarkets because most of our clients are families," said Shirley Decker, product management coordinator at Goff Food Stores, Haslett, Mich. "We typically do better with children's movies than anything else, whether for sell-through or rental," she said.

Retailers are expecting sales of "Space Jam" to rival those of the big Disney animated features.

"There is a lot of excitement about 'Space Jam' in our stores right now, and that has got to be a very positive thing," said Feiock of Nash Finch. "Everything Disney brings out seems to do well, but it is good to see somebody else come along and give them some competition," he said.

"With 'Space Jam,' the tie-ins with the hard-line products are very good," said Glisch of Mega Mart. "It creates a shelf space challenge for us, but certainly the profit is there and the demand is there," he said.

"I've heard nothing but good things about 'Space Jam,' " said Molitor of Dierbergs. "Michael Jordan is very well-known. Adults and children alike identify with him and enjoy watching him play basketball. I'm sure they will enjoy watching him in a movie," she said.

"Bambi" also will do well, but it will be limited because it is a re-release, she said. The success of "Hunchback of Notre Dame" is harder to predict. "A lot of people didn't particularly care for it. They thought it was a rather dark movie for children," she said.

"I am not as thrilled about 'Hunchback' as some of the other movies Disney has put out," said Darnell of Southeast Foods. Some parents have commented on the movie's comparatively "mature themes," she said.

"But if sales go as they have in the past, even if the parents aren't crazy about it, they will eventually give in to the children. So we will probably buy pretty deep on 'Hunchback' because of the track record of Disney titles," she said. "'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' will not do as well as 'Lion King,' but should do about the same numbers as 'Aladdin,' " said Decker of Goff. "We expect 'Bambi' to do better than 'Snow White' or 'Cinderella.' Those two titles bombed because of a feminist backlash. Women said they did not like the feminine roles portrayed in those videos," she said.

"We expect 'Hunchback' to do a tremendous job for us," said Gary Schloss, vice president of general merchandise at Carr Gottstein Foods, Anchorage, Alaska. "Any title from Disney or Sesame Street, or even Warner Bros. with its 'Space Jam,' will be a winner," he said.

" 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' will be very good," said Bob Gettner, video buyer and coordinator at B&R Stores, Lincoln, Neb. " 'Sleeping Beauty' will be out in September, and because that has not been available for 11 years, there will be a strong demand for it," he said.