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Video stores stock obscure titles to compensate for lack of hit movies


There are, right this minute, about 30,000 movies, TV shows and how-to titles already available on videotape. Nearly everything that movie studios think could make money is already on sale.

But the thing about the video business is that the machine has to be fed, even if there are no longer enough mainline titles to feed it. This summer, aside from the release of "Home Alone" and "Dances With Wolves" in August, there is a more random list of releases than usual, partially because the first part of the year was not exactly chock-full of stirring commercial successes.

"The Russia House" will be in stores tomorrow, and Mel Gibson's "Hamlet" will follow a week later, as will "Sleeping With the Enemy." (Jonathan Demme's superb thriller, "The Silence of the Lambs" won't hit stores until October.)

The comparatively paltry list of major releases means that video companies need to rely on film libraries, pickups and niche titles. They may not throw off enormous profits individually, but they add up.

Ron Castell, vice president of Blockbuster Entertainment, looks at 400 videos a month. Out of that, he'll buy somewhere between 50 and 100 for his chain. "That includes 'How to Grow Roses,' as well as 'Dances With Wolves,' " he said.

MGM/UA will be releasing a selection of six Greta Garbo silent films this month, rare titles such as "The Single Standard" and "The Kiss," the last silent made by MGM.

In August, Disney's Buena Vista Video will give Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" a second chance at life. Even though it won the Best Film award at last year's Venice Film Festival, the film barely got out of the big cities in this country.

Then there are the mutts, the strays, movies that were never released at all. They may sound interesting, but, upon viewing, it usually becomes clear that they were unreleased for very good reasons. However, any movie with Michael Caine, (a greatly aged) Roger Moore -- both in dual roles -- and John Cleese ought to be worth a $3 rental, no? In that case, check out "Bullseye."

If your taste runs to sci-fi, go for "Robot Jox," with lots of neat stop-motion animation of giant robots by David Allen, as well as a screenplay by esteemed genre author Joe Haldeman. Both "Bullseye" and "Robot Jox" will be out in late August.

What determines whether or not a video store stocks a given title? "Basically, if it got any kind of theatrical release, we'll carry it," said Mr. Castell.

"A lot of it is market sensitivity. A nice little film like 'Metropolitan' will do better on the east side of New York than in Kalamazoo."

In many ways, it's a strange business. Burt Reynolds' "The Longest Yard" rents an average of six times a year per store, Mr. Castell said. Ditto the Sean Connery film "The Wind and the Lion." Now, no one walks into a store intending to rent either, but those titles will be picked up on impulse, or as part of a display merchandising a specific genre.

Videos also offer a last gasp to scrape in a few more dollars for those big-budget disasters that people in the media spend too much ink writing about. Will "Hudson Hawk" ever show a profit? Not likely, but Tri-Star is sure to slide that sucker into stores real fast, just as Warners did with "Bonfire of the Vanities."

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