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Blockbuster's 'Swordfish' Diet

27 Sep, 2001 By: Staff Reporter

In what appears to be an isolated move on the part of Blockbuster Inc., the nation's largest video rental chain has cut its VHS and DVD orders for Warner Home Video's Swordfish, claiming that its terrorist/anti-terrorist theme is too close for comfort, a Blockbuster spokeswoman said.

Ironically, it's these action-based videos and DVDs, such as 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's Die Hard and The Siege, that were flying off rental and retail shelves shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

In addition, Blockbuster officials said Tuesday that they will place shelf-talkers in all 5,000-plus stores on the section where Warner's Swordfish is displayed. The placards will warn customers that Swordfish has a terrorist/anti-terrorist theme and that it's rated R for violence, a Blockbuster spokeswoman said.

In light of recent rental trends, some industry sources have speculated that the shelf-talker is a way to boost the marketing of the title, but Blockbuster has steadfastly denied that was the company's intent.

In fact, Blockbuster officials said the company purchased only 64% of its goal, or an estimated 315,000 VHS and DVD units, which are retail-priced at $22.98 and $24.98, respectively. That compares with nearly meeting all purchase goals on such titles as The Perfect Storm and Miss Congeniality.

"We probably would have carried about 100 copies per store, but now we'll have between 60-70 to rent and sell," the spokeswoman said.

Warner executives declined comment on Blockbuster's tactics or to verify numbers, but one executive did say that it is odd that Blockbuster singled out Swordfish, which is actually about a spy hired by the CIA to break up a corrupt ring of terrorist computer hackers.

"Why does Swordfish, that has a release date five weeks away, get this treatment, and nothing else in the store (does)?" a Warner executive asked.

Blockbuster's spokeswoman said the company's top executives labored long and hard over what to do about rentals and sales of violent product in the wake of the terrorist attacks. "This is just the first new title to come up with that type of theme," she said. "We have no current plans to add shelf-talker warnings to any other violent catalog videos or video games. But that doesn't mean we're not actively looking at the best way to balance our customers' needs with our social responsibilities."

She added that the shelf-talker is designed to warn people about new product they might not know is violent. "Most people know what to expect from catalog product like the Die Hard series," she said.

Some industry sources claim that Blockbuster is singling out Warner because the studio has marked the typically rental-priced VHS Swordfish for retail sales, a practice that works to the disadvantage of Blockbuster by taking away any exclusive rental window it might have had.

But Blockbuster's spokeswoman denied that retail pricing played any role in the decision to purchase fewer copies or to place the shelf-talker on Swordfish late next month.

Before the terrorist attacks, Blockbuster had acquired about 528,000 rental-priced VHS and retail-priced DVD copies of Warner's action title Exit Wounds, placing about 120 copies in each store nationwide, according to Blockbuster.

Blockbuster also acquired 642,000 VHS and DVD copies of Paramount Home Entertainment's crime thriller Along Came a Spider, or about 146 copies per store.

Neither Hollywood Video, the nation's second-largest video rental chain, nor Movie Gallery, the nation's third-largest rental chain, said it has plans to limit its buys or take extra precautions other than to not rent R-rated movies to minors without the written consent of parents, the industry's long-held practice.

--Brett Sporich

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