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PRIVATE LIVES : A Trip Down Celluloid Lane : Video companies are finding gold in old movies, mining their vaults to satisfy viewers who want to acquire treasured classics. But the list of what's not available is a big part of the story.

November 13, 1994|Susan King | Susan King is a Times staff writer

Old is gold for video companies. Because movie buffs are collecting vintage flicks on tape in a big way, video companies are mining their vaults for celluloid nuggets.

MPI Home Video scored a big hit with this fall's release of the 1953 John Wayne Western "Hondo." Paramount Home Video has just released the 1934 Frank Capra comedy "Broadway Bill" and the 1950 remake "Riding High."

MCA/Universal Home Video recently brought out the 1946 Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire musical "Blue Skies," the 1937 Marlene Dietrich movie "Angel" and a collection of "Francis the Talking Mule" and Abbott & Costello comedies. Several companies are featuring lush gift sets of classics for the holidays.

But plenty of classic films still are not available on video, including the 1950 musical "Annie Get Your Gun," the 1965 "Othello," starring Laurence Olivier, and the 1943 Gary Cooper-Ingrid Bergman romance "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

The older films obviously were made before there was such a thing as home video, so there often are legalities to hurdle.

"That's something that people don't understand," says Corie Hazen, manager of marketing services for FoxVideo. "That's why a lot of the really strong movies aren't released--for various reasons that could range from music clearance issues to other legal issues."

Those issues, says Hollace Brown, senior vice president, advertising and sales, for Paramount Home Video, "take quite frankly a while to research--it is quite an arduous process."

Other times, there are holdups until a film can be restored to its original glory.

"We've been very careful in restoring all of our films, making sure all the footage is there, making sure it's the best quality," says Glenn Ross, senior vice president of marketing for Republic Entertainment Inc.

"If for some reason we can't get ahold of high-quality elements, we don't release it," Hazen says. "We try to add value features on all of the classic films and include behind-the-scenes footage and theatrical trailers and Movietone News whenever possible."

Says George Feltenstein, senior vice president and general manager of MGM/UA Home Video: "We put a great deal of care into how we transfer every thing. I'm proud of what we have been able to accomplish. . . . So many of the omissions that were gaping holes in our cinematic history a decade ago are just a couple of cracks now."

Companies look for star power when choosing movies for release: Actors who have lost their luster and films that did poorly at the box office are less likely to be chosen for video release. Some video companies shy away from black-and-white films.

"We research titles in terms of what's appealing on a timely basis," Hazen says. "If a director is having a resurgence in a certain year or there's an anniversary of a star or a director, we will consider one of those titles for release."

'W hat we are in the business of is publishing," explains Ben Feingold, president of Columbia/TriStar Home Video. Columbia's vintage films on tape include "It Happened One Night," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "From Here to Eternity," "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Guns of Navarone."

"These films have enduring value," he says.

MGM/UA Home Video was one of the first companies to tap into the vintage video market when it seriously began releasing old movies in 1987. Among its classic bestsellers are "The Wizard of Oz," "Gone With the Wind," "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Student Prince."

But with so many films now in release, the company has decreased the annual number of "new" old films from 100 to roughly 20 to 30.

"We've released so many titles already," Feltenstein explains. "Over 1,000 titles are available from what I consider the 'classic' portion of the library."

Although plenty of movies are still available from the company's rich library of MGM and pre-1949 Warner Bros. films, he says, "it's just that there are many titles that would not be economically feasible for us to release. They are so obscure. There are just not enough people who would be interested."

MGM/UA "really kind of created the marketplace for classic films as a collectible medium," Feltenstein says. "One of the reasons we did it was out of necessity, because we've had such a cavalcade of different owners and managements that we haven't had a consistent flow of new rental product. The other (reason) is that we are the keepers of the world's greatest film library. We have an obligation to make those films available."

Republic Home Video was also an early pioneer. "Republic has a library of 1,400 classic features," Ross says. "Beyond that, we have another approximately 5,000 titles that Republic acquired."

Each month, he says, "we probably put out as many as six classic titles. Some of it is product that we have re-released in the marketplace because we've found extra footage or we have created a collector's edition or anniversary edition. We're looking for ways to add value and find a new audience."

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