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Rush Videos Are Finding a Sensational Niche

January 29, 1998|MARION FLANAGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When a car crash in Paris ended Princess Diana's life in August, news of the accident prompted not only the usual spate of tributary books, but at least seven videos as well, the first of which hit the streets 16 days after her death.

Although it wasn't the first time a video had been produced at warp speed, the swift proliferation of Princess Diana tapes underscored the expanding prominence of rush-release videos--and the emergence of video suppliers as shrewd instant publishers.

Taking a page from book publishers, who for years have exploited rush releases on everyone from Oliver North to O.J. Simpson, video suppliers are applying the same breakneck formula to the small screen, producing tapes on the nation's most sensational headlines in as little as three days.

Companies such as PolyGram Video and CBS/Fox Video have long been releasing tapes on championship sporting events ranging from the Super Bowl to the World Series. Now video suppliers are turning to CNN for fodder, with such recent releases as "Murder One . . . the Nanny Murder Trial" and "Mother Teresa: A Life of Devotion."

"This competition is not surprising," said Waleed Ali, president of MPI Home Video, which released both "Diana: Legacy of a Princess" and "Diana Princess of Wales: The Final Farewell."

"If you hit it, it's very lucrative," he said.

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Not all headlines lend themselves to the instant video treatment, however. The Clinton sex scandal may be all over the television and newspaper, but don't expect to see a tape of Monica Lewinsky in your neighborhood video stores any time soon.

"The problem with putting out this sort of video is no sooner have you made arrangements than it's outdated," Ali said. "There's news unfolding every day. . . . If I could get an interview with a secret service agent who saw something happening, I'd rush-release a video in an instant, but Ken Starr has first dibs on that."

Nevertheless, Ali has found a way around the problem. He said that he is preparing a tape on sex in the White House, a compendium of presidential indiscretions.

MPI has long been a leader in the instant video category, having rush-released videos on Ross Perot within weeks of the Texas billionaire's first presidential bid and an O.J. Simpson trial tape soon after the jury delivered its verdict.

"We were always the first to be able to exploit a title because we are fast at getting material turned around--usually 72 hours," Ali said.

Although MPI is better known for its special-interest fare, ranging from vintage television to historical documentaries, Ali says instant publishing is a lucrative sideline.

"If we were to do only quick-release programs, we would starve," he said. "But these tapes have been profitable. We've made $6 million or $7 million in rapid releases in the past decade."

But MPI lost money on one of the two Princess Diana tapes it released in September. According to Ali, 170,000 units of "The Final Farewell" were scheduled to ship Sept. 10. But he said he ran into problems when ABC News, which licensed footage of Princess Diana's funeral to MPI, had a change of heart under pressure from Buckingham Palace. ABC filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, which issued an injunction forcing MPI to halt sales.

Although "Farewell" is still in litigation, 65,000 units of the second tape, "Legacy of a Princess," were eventually shipped in late September, according to Ali. The title reached Billboard's top 10.

The time lapse turned out to be a windfall for a competitor, rush-release newcomer MVP. Its "Diana: The People's Princess"--which landed on store shelves Sept. 16--was the first tape out.

"We had no marketing plan, except to be first on the market and be widely distributed with very classy packaging," said MVP President Philip Knowles, referring to the pricey gold foil on the box.

The strategy paid off. Knowles said MVP, which had rush-released only three other titles in the past, has sold in excess of 200,000 units to stores--one of its most successful videos to date. The title hit No. 4 on Billboard's video sales charts, trailing three box-office stalwarts: "Liar Liar," 'Sleeping Beauty" and "The Star Wars Trilogy."

Meanwhile, Fox Lorber Home Video ignored the Diana mania and raced to capitalize on the buzz over the so-called "au pair murder trial" last month. The supplier rush-released "Murder One, Massachusetts vs. Woodward, the Nanny Murder Trial," which shows courtroom footage of the trial, courtesy of a preexisting deal with Court TV.

Fox Lorber Home Video President Michael Olivieri declined to give sales numbers, but said the title is poised to ship "in the mid-five-figure range"--a respectable number, according to some suppliers, who say more than 10,000 units is a fair number for rush releases.

"We don't view ourselves as a home video company. We view ourselves as publishers, and this was a good publishing opportunity," Olivieri said of the tape.

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