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Box Office, Schmox Office

16 Sep, 2005 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Remember the days when a weak theatrical slate signaled bad times ahead for home video? Eight years ago, when the box office was suffering a slump similar to this year's, the studios were in a tizzy that a flattening rental business would only get worse.

Articles in Forbes and other respected consumer publications questioned the viability of the video industry. Warner Home Video executives put together a road show, illustrating the comparative box office performance of 1997 movies with the previous year's films in an attempt to portray the slowdown as an unfortunate blip rather than the beginning of the end. Revenue-sharing and copy-depth programs sprung up, and the business turned around.

So, by the way, did the box office.

The situation now is remarkably similar — and yet completely different. A protracted slump at the box office has everyone worried, but that's assuming that theatrical features still drive our business. To a large degree they do, but a look at the weekly sales and rental charts shows that our fortunes do not solely rest on the latest theatrical blockbuster to hit DVD.

This week was the perfect case in point. Buena Vista Home Entertainment's first-season set of TV's “Lost” debuted at No. 2 on the preliminary national sales chart, and an analysis by Home Media Research showed that 21.5 percent of total unit sales for the top 20 sellers came from TV DVD releases.

Meanwhile, the third-place finisher was Buena Vista's 10th anniversary edition of Toy Story — a high-powered theatrical release, to be sure, but one that hasn't lit up a moviehouse marquee since 1995.

The truth is, our business is becoming less and less dependent on the box office. Pointing today at a fourth-quarter release slate brimming with high-powered theatrical releases, expectations are mounting that we may find ourselves back in double-digit growth land.

Several folks have said they see a definite light at the end of the tunnel. I'd make a case that the tunnel isn't nearly as dark as it's being made out to be.

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