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You Won't Find Any Documentaries Here

The industry shudders at the use of the D-word for 'nonfiction' or 'historical' videos--but, by any name, there's a growing niche for them in the marketplace.

June 09, 1996|Donald Liebenson | Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based freelancer who writes about home video

What do "The Thin Blue Line," "Baseball," "Brother's Keeper," "America's Castles," "Hoop Dreams," "Unzipped" and "Crumb" have in common? If you said they are all documentaries, take another look. The home video industry would prefer that you think of them as "nonfiction features" or "historical films."

From a marketing standpoint, none dare use the dreaded D-word. Or the E-word, for that matter. As in educational.

In marketing these titles, "the main challenge is the word itself," said Tito Mandato, director of strategic marketing for Turner Home Entertainment, which distributes PBS Home Video. "Five years ago, documentaries were thought of as a weird category for video stores. The typical comment was that customers come to rent 'Die Hard' and aren't into PBS. We replied that PBS reaches 93 million people a week, and guess what, they're your customers and you'd better start talking to them."

"Historically, documentary has been a dirty word in retail, as has television," agreed Tom Heymann, vice president of new media for A&E Television Networks, whose programs are released on the A&E Home Video and History Channel labels. "For a long time, there was a knee-jerk reaction that television exposure was a negative. We have built on the fact that it is a preview mechanism and can be a powerful merchandising tool."

Theatrical exposure for a docu--oops--nonfiction feature has also broken down resistance at the retail level and helped to carve out invaluable space on crowded video store shelves. Again, the challenge is to market a you-know-what without referring to it as a you-know-what.

Among the inaugural releases in BMG Video's new rental line, BMG Independents, is "Tie-Died: Rock 'n Roll's Most Deadicated Fans," which chronicles the long, strange trip of the Deadheads. "Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam" has a date with video stores July 2.

"We didn't go out looking for documentaries," said Mindy Pickard, vice president of marketing for BMG Video. "We went looking for cool, theatrically released movies that are intelligent and critically acclaimed."

"There is more acceptance in theaters for documentaries," added Dennis Fabrizi, the video buyer for 20/20 Video in Los Angeles. "'And the more exposure a documentary gets theatrically, the more video exposure it will get."

From "Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business," just released on the Fox Lorber Home Video label, to the Discovery Channel's three-volume set "The Revolutionary War," the truth is out there, and it's more visible than ever--visible being a relative term in the special interest market. Whereas a video store may stock 10, 20 or more copies of a box-office hit such as "Get Shorty" or "Grumpier Old Men" to meet customer demand, it may carry only one or two copies of a nonfiction title.

"Ordering a copy is better than ordering no copies," said John Pierson, author of "Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes," a book about his experiences in the independent movie business. "At least one box is on the shelves side by side with 'Seven.' "

Though home video is still a hit-driven business, retailers have found that those one or two copies can be among their most consistent renters. It is a niche market geared toward long shelf life. New Line Home Video, for example, can count on its World War II titles, including "Victory at Sea" and "George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin," to see action every Memorial Day.

The growth of the sell-through market has given nonfiction programming a boost, while positioning in nontraditional outlets such as bookstores, catalogs and direct response has increased their profile in the marketplace.

There are breakout successes, notable among them Michael Moore's "Roger & Me" and "Truth or Dare," featuring Madonna. But "Hoop Dreams" slam-dunked them all, generating cumulative sales of 350,000 copies since it was released to the rental market by New Line last year and re-priced for the sell-through market last November.

" 'Hoop Dreams' blew away general perceptions of what a documentary is," said New Line Executive Vice President Michael Karaffa, "and it made retailers at least take more pause to judge a film on its qualities and not just on box office."

A vital element in "Hoop Dreams' " video success, Karaffa said, was the box art, which dramatically silhouetted a basketball player soaring above the Chicago skyline. It complemented the film's "feature qualities, its story arc and character development."

"Hoop Dreams" was a phenomenon. Other companies have made steady inroads at retail by creating brand and franchise awareness through consistent release schedules and distinctive, uniform packaging. A&E Home Video's "Biography" series and "National Geographic Video," which is distributed by Columbia TriStar Home Video, are two examples of collections that have become established names, much as the Disney brand is in the realm of family programming.

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