Disc blitz hits holidays

'Pirates,' 'Prada,' tube fare crowding shelf space

The holiday glut at the box office has nothing on the season’s disc deluge.

Each year, studios squeeze more releases into the fourth quarter in a bid for holiday sales, but this year’s title wave is especially intense. Hits like “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “The Devil Wears Prada” will vie with “Lady in the Water,” “Material Girls” and “Beerfest,” plus a dizzying array of small-screen fare ranging from the latest season of “24” to “Stacked: The Complete Series” and “Full House Season Five.”

Some pics will be released in three or more configurations thanks to the nascent high-def battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray formats. Warner will release more than a dozen “Superman” configurations alone, including a massive 14-disc “Ultimate Collector’s Edition.”

In the theatrical biz, stacked skeds spur inevitable worries about cannibalization, but the prevailing mood in homevideo is the more the merrier. With the DVD biz flat and newer technologies like digital downloads yet to take off, studios are determined to grow their take however possible, be it through massive title waves, pricey box sets or budget fare designed for impulse buys.

“We’re going into December with probably the most robust product slate ever,” said Universal Studios Home Entertainment marketing exec VP Ken Graffeo.

“It’s very crowded this year,” Warner homevid prexy Ron Sanders concurred.

He notes that studios are releasing more late-summer and even September pics before Christmas due to the seasonality of the biz. The five-week period between Thanksgiving and Christmas accounts for about 23% of Warner’s annual biz, and studios can make upward of half their DVD coin in the fourth quarter.

This December “is much stronger than previous years,” said Fox homevid exec VP-general manager Simon Swart. “It’s tougher if you have some smaller movies that might get squeezed out.”

Fox’s fourth-quarter slate includes “X-Men: The Last Stand,” already a success on DVD; “Ice Age: The Meltdown” this week; plus “Prada,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and the fifth season of “24” in December.

Rival execs concede the competish can be daunting but say the risk is worth it for just a fraction of holiday coin.

“It’s always a challenge to break through,” Sanders admitted. “But the huge benefit you get in seasonal uplift is more than offset by cannibalization by the number of titles.

“Even with the competition, you still come out ahead.”

Besides, Graffeo said, cannibalization is less an issue in the DVD biz because consumers typically purchase more than one disc at a time.

“In December it’s a lot higher,” he said.

DVD mavens are especially heartened by the strong perf of hits early in the quarter — there had been concern they were losing their might on DVD. “X-Men 3” and Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” both had boffo bows Oct. 3, with “X-Men 3” selling 5 million units its first week, “The Little Mermaid” more than 4 million. The month ended appreciably up from last year.

“The market expanded in October,” said Paramount Home Entertainment domestic prexy Meagan Burrows. “That bodes well for November and December.”

Indeed, Disney’s “Cars” clocked the best bow of the year earlier this month, selling around 9.5 million discs the week following its Nov. 7 debut. (Rentrak Retail Essentials said consumers bought 8 million discs at brick-and-mortar stores, but that does not include online sales and copies sold to retailers.)

The DVD biz was watching “Cars” closely for signs the pic’s availability for $12.99 download through iTunes would affect disc sales, but that does not appear to be the case.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment G.M. Lori MacPherson said pic’s strong performance should help put concerns about the potency of hit titles on disc to rest.

“There was some concern in 2005, but in 2006 a lot of that concern has gone away,” MacPherson said. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised more than we’ve been disappointed.”

According to Steve Lyon, Sony senior VP of biz development, year-to-date sales are near flat, but October jumped double digits.

Sony projects a record quarter courtesy titles such as “Click” and “Talladega Nights.” That’s without MGM product, now distributed by Fox.

“So far, so good for us,” Lyon said.

Paramount, which releases DreamWorks product, also predicts a record fourth quarter on titles such as “Over the Hedge,” “Mission: Impossible 3,” “World Trade Center” and “Jackass 2.”

“We’re very bullish,” Burrows said. “We project the fourth quarter up 12% overall industry. That’s all in — hits, TV on DVD and catalog.”

For their part, Fox execs project double-digit gains for the quarter internally and at least a 6%-7% lift for the biz, based on gains at the summer B.O.

“So far, we are really happy,” Fox’s Swart said. “We’re very optimistic.”

Studios with a less-potent product slate from the summer B.O. — such as Warners — expect to finish the year slightly down despite ramped up catalog slates. The have-nots can take solace in the fact they don’t have VHS to worry about any more — the creaky format had become a drain on the overall biz — and that high-def discs may soon pump up the biz once again.

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