Titanic Frenzy Continues as Video Hits the Street

Video stores decked out like ships, replicas of the doomed ocean liner carved from huge blocks of ice, memorabilia priced off the chart---it was all part of the seemingly endless hysteria surrounding James Cameron's Titanic as the first video copies hit the street last week. Stores remained open late to serve eager fans, who waited in long lines to buy the film when it went on sale at 12:01 am, Tuesday, September 1. According to Bruce Apar, editor of Video Business magazine, "Inarguably, Titanic is the biggest video event in years. This is the kind of marquee title that gets people into the stores to buy other titles as well."

Traffic jams in Chicago and a strong-arm robbery outside a Blockbuster Video store in San Francisco were the only incidents marring the video debut of the film. "This was the largest video first-day release I've ever seen," says John Reed, manager of a Blockbuster store in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. "It was a lot bigger turnout than I expected." More than 150 customers in his store bought copies of the film in the first 20 minutes. The Times Square Virgin Megastore in Manhattan had more than 1200 copies on hand, with an additional 5000 on order.

The 4000-store Blockbuster chain kept many of its outlets open until 2 am with "Bon Voyage" parties for diehard fans, almost all of whom had seen the film multiple times. They gladly forked over cash, checks, and credit cards for the two-tape, $24.99 list-price disaster flick. The average price nationwide was around $20, but Reel.com, the Berkeley, California-based Internet movie service, was discounting Titanic down to $9.99. "We brought it in under budget," say the company's ads---and they did, at a hefty loss of $6 per copy, based on the rumored wholesale price of $16.

According to Reel.com CEO Julie Wainwright, "We opted to take the loss to introduce people to shopping at our site. We figured if they had a good experience, there's a good chance they'd come back." The company took orders at the rate of three per second during peak Internet hours; through the weekend prior to the official street date, they had taken a total of 150,000 orders.

Best Buy opened almost all of its 289 stores at midnight to sell the video. "Just the front section," says spokeswoman Laurie Bauer, "so we didn’t have to staff the entire store." A free Titanic calendar accompanied each $19.99 purchase. Best Buy has opened at midnight only twice previously: once to sell the Beatles' first Anthology CD and once for the launch of Windows 95.

Paramount Home Video has shipped more than 20 million videotape copies of the film, which runs over three hours. The tape is available in both letterbox and standard-video formats. The DVD version will be shipped at an unspecified date later this fall.

Titanic took in more than $600 million domestically and over $1.2 billion overseas. The Video Software Dealers Association estimates that studios make about 55% of a film's total revenue from video sales and rental and only about 23% from its theatrical run. (Incidentally, theater owners claim to make next to nothing from films themselves, but instead draw most of their profits from the concession stand.)

Many observers expect Titanic, which won 11 Academy Awards, to become the new best-selling live-action video. Jurassic Park is currently on top, having sold over 17 million copies. Disney's animated feature The Lion King is the absolute record holder at 30 million copies, a figure Titanic could eventually surpass.

Business is still brisk, but after the initial rush, retailers had plenty of copies still in stock, and some expect the frenzy to die down quickly. "It will reach the saturation point early," says Michael Becker of New York City's Video Room. Becker predicts a quick die-off because of the huge number of available copies at discount outlets. San Francisco's downtown Virgin Megastore sold only about 100 of its 1200 copies by noon of the first day, but video buyer Sonja Walker is philosophical. "We figure people will come in after work," she says.

Some fans can't get enough. Dianne Castillo, 21, of New York City, claims to have seen the film 54 times in theaters, but she eagerly waited outside the Times Square Virgin Megastore to buy the video. "It's a good love story," she explains. "The way he died for her, you wouldn't find that here. Nobody in New York is going to die for you."

Others are more acerbic. Asked why he stood in line for 90 minutes to buy a copy of a film he had seen four times, 21-year-old Bill Fowble of Seattle replied, "Because we're all idiots." His girlfriend Heather Curtis calls Titanic "the best movie ever." Her evaluation might be debatable, but there's no doubt that the film is among the most enduring. Even as the video sells like hotcakes, Titanic continues to play in more than 500 theaters in North America. Curiously, the video launch is expected to rekindle interest in the theatrical version---pushing the film's profits even higher. The good ship Titanic might have gone down, but Titanic the film appears capable of sailing on forever.