As soon as it was clear "Titanic" was a big winner at the box office, A&E Home Video executives rushed to pull a 4-year-old, four-hour documentary on the doomed ocean liner out of the vault.
"Titanic," the documentary, aired on the A&E cable television network in 1994 and was then released on video. The four-video boxed set, then priced at $59.95, sold fewer than 60,000 copies.
But since A&E refloated the videos to retailers in January, the documentary has sold 200,000 copies, continuing to sell at a brisk 25,000 copies a week.
"It's the biggest-selling title in our history," said David Walmsley, A&E's home video director. "The really amazing thing is, it's a product we've had in distribution for four years, and suddenly it's our biggest seller."
Welcome to video coattail-riding. Or, as GoodTimes Home Video Senior Vice President Jeff Baker euphemistically calls it, "parallel marketing."
The practice was once limited to inexpensive knockoffs of animated Walt Disney features rushed to home video stores while the big-budget Disney films were still in theaters. Now the marketing of videos linked to hot movies is on the rise.
Shrewd marketers have expanded beyond simple cartoon copycats to old movies, made-for-TV fare and documentaries.
Expect to see next a lot of cheesy vintage "Godzilla" films, pegged to the release of Sony Pictures' much-ballyhooed remake of the Japanese horror film.
GoodTimes is releasing three original "Godzillas," including the 1956 camp classic "Godzilla Versus King Kong." Anchor Bay this month came out with five vintage "Godzilla" flicks, including "Godzilla 1985," with Raymond Burr, once thought to have been the final "Godzilla." Simitar Entertainment this month also released five Godzilla films. And Brentwood Home Video is releasing "Godzilla Versus the Cosmic Monster" and the 1956 "Godzilla: King of All Monsters."
"Godzilla movies are like the Three Stooges in that there's a steady and insatiable appetite for whatever you put out on home video, so they've done quite well all along. But obviously the hoopla about a big-budget remake has taken the intensity up quite a bit," said Anchor Bay's Jay Douglas.
The first big example of video coattail-riding came in 1990, when Disney's 'The Little Mermaid" was about to be released theatrically. A budget video supplier, Starmaker Entertainment, which sold cheap videos to supermarkets and discount stores, bought a European version of "Mermaid" and released it on video.
"Target Stores was the first chain to get behind it," recalled Jay Douglas, vice president of acquisitions for Anchor Bay Entertainment, which subsequently bought Starmaker. "They stocked up on it and ran an ad for our video around the same time the Disney film hit.
"And they sold it like crazy. We probably did a half-million units, which for a company of Starmaker's size was incredible."
Before long, other small video suppliers were releasing their own versions of Disney movies. Most prolific was GoodTimes Home Video, which has produced and rushed to market its own low-budget takes on such Disney hits as "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Sleeping Beauty," "Pocahontas" and "Aladdin."
"I think we absolutely benefited from all the Disney advertising," GoodTimes' Baker said. "When the movie is in theaters, there's an opportunity, but this opportunity generally ends when the movie comes out on video. After that, parallel marketing doesn't work; consumers can buy the real thing instead of the knockoff."
Disney executives and other critics have questioned the ethics of selling the animated knockoffs because unsophisticated consumers may be duped into believing they are buying Disney movies.
In April 1994, Disney filed a trade infringement suit against GoodTimes, claiming the packaging of the budget label's "Aladdin" had infringed on the "trade dress," or look, of Disney's animated classics and thus was confusing to consumers. A federal judge ultimately ruled against Disney, but GoodTimes says it has scaled back its Disney piggybacking.
"To be honest, after 'Aladdin,' for some reason, the sales tended to go down on a lot of the parallel marketing we did after that," Baker said.
Even so, "Titanic" proved too much to resist. GoodTimes has come out with its own documentary, "A Question of Murder," which Baker said has sold about 100,000 units at a suggested list price of $9.98.
Piggyback video has grown well beyond just things Disney. As soon as so-called "event" movies begin racking up high box office totals, video stores are renting and selling an array of related titles. "Twister" not only spawned a handful of low-budget direct-to-video imitators, but it also prompted A&E to release a documentary, "Tornado Chasers," on home video.
Trimark Pictures, an independent film company behind the critically acclaimed "Eve's Bayou," joined in shortly before the theatrical release last year of Universal Pictures' "Dante's Peak" and 20th Century Fox's "Volcano."