Video cashes in on cachet of a cult film

Polygram is spending 1m-plus on Reservoir Dogs’ release to pull in a new video audience

Reservoir Dogs, a film about a blood-spattered bank robbery that goes fatally wrong, is about to burst onto television screens across the UK with many in the video rental market hoping it will have as big an impact on their business as it did on Quentin Tarantino’s career.

Polygram Filmed Entertainment has launched a 1m-plus campaign – one of the video industry’s largest ever – for the long-awaited video release of Tarantino’s cult classic in June. The film’s success is important, not just for its producers, but because it could have a profound effect on the UK video rental business.

Many hope that the video release of the film – blocked by censors for two years – will give rental operators a new audience, outside their core C1C2D consumer base.

Polygram is investing heavily above the line. Some 5,000 poster sites have been booked, in addition to a 96-sheet combined poster campaign with The Times – a joint promotion featuring an image from the film and the strapline: “Can you afford to be without lively debate?”

Co-promotions have been struck with Faber & Faber and MCA Records. Themed “Dogs” nights will take place at night clubs across the UK in June.

There’s even a Reservoir Dogs Internet site. Polygram estimates that 150,000 people will have visited the site by the time of the video’s rental release. A promotion is being developed to offer them the chance to rent the video free from selected outlets by downloading and printing out a personalised coupon.

“Reservoir Dogs is an art house film that’s crossed into the mainstream,” says Polygram head of marketing Reg Thompson. “During the two years its video release was withheld it enjoyed fantastic publicity we could never have afforded.”

Reservoir Dogs was first released theatrically in January 1993, directed by a then little-known director. Video rental was planned for July 1993, but delayed because of tabloid outrage at the murder of Liverpool toddler James Bulger. The British Board of Film Classification refused a certificate for the video release of the film until last month.

“It offers a huge opportunity for the video rental market by reaching a broad cross-section of the public and boosting the proportion of ABC1s that will rent,” says Thompson.

The video rental industry has had a tough time in the Nineties. After dramatic growth in the Eighties it peaked at a 1989 value of 569m, and then began to plateau when VCR penetration reached near-saturation point – at about 78 per cent of UK households, the same figure as for colour TV sets – and with the onset of recession. The growth of satellite TV hit rentals by targeting the video business’s C1C2D consumer base. And the fact that price dealers had to pay for top movies – about 60 a title – drove many out of business.

The UK video rental market is characterised by successful multiples such as Blockbuster, which markets itself on its breadth of stock, and small independents. But the market has moved on. Consumers prefer a limited sel-ection of movies to rent: blockbusters with which they feel familiar. Ten per cent of films released account for 90 per cent of the business, says Thompson.

But he adds that: “Margins are high. With a film like Four Weddings and a Funeral you can make a fortune. What’s disappeared is the secondary – or support movie – market.”

A company distributing a top-rated blockbuster can expect to sell between 50,000 and 60,000 copies to video rental dealers. The rental release of Jurassic Park sold 85,000 units. Middle-ranking movies, with a strong cast but without blockbusters’ added appeal, sell nearer 30,000.

“We must make a hit fast, and work it hard,” Thompson explains. If dealers buy too few copies of a film, they rarely come back for more, preferring to do better with subsequent releases. Distributors like Polygram must report back to the film’s producers on a film-by-film basis. They cannot make up for an unsuccessful campaign with other releases.

A movie usually has three bites at the marketing cherry: at the time of its cinema release, at its video rental release and, finally, if it goes into the sell-through market – the whole cycle usually taking just over a year.

“We create demand for a film which is already known from its cinema release,” Thompson says. “We must ensure the video dealer buys as many as possible. The best way to do this is to get people to request the film.”

Polygram co-ordinates all campaigns for theatrical, rental and sell-through release. Some are modified for the video market to give the film an instantly identifiable angle. The rental strategy is usually bolder and more aggressive, says Thompson. “If a video shop owner gets a new customer who only rents twice a year, it’s still a customer worth having – and keeping.”