Holiday toon tiff miffs exhibs

'Mermaid,' 'Anastasia' bows present problems

As the holiday feature animation wars rage on, some theater owners may have to decide which cartoon heroine to bring home for Thanksgiving: Ariel or Anastasia.

Exhibitors are grumbling that Buena Vista, which reissues its animated hit “The Little Mermaid” on Nov. 14, is using an unusual sales policy to discourage smaller complexes from playing Fox’s first feature animation, “Anastasia,” which comes out the following weekend.

“They’re using every legal means possible to embarrass Fox,” said one buyer for a major chain.

BV is releasing “Mermaid” in a 17-day limited run which ends Nov. 30. Since the run ends on a Sunday, and films typically open on Friday, theater-owners are left having to figure out what to do with the auditorium for four weekdays.

But Disney execs have reportedly told some theater buyers that they can play a shorter “locked” 12-day run of “Mermaid” — as long as they don’t segue directly into BV’s high-profile holiday kidpic, “Flubber,” which bows Nov. 26.

The only other film opening that day is Fox’s “Alien Resurrection.” Small complexes, with between four and six screens, typically play only one film at a time from each of the major studios. So theater owners who play “Resurrection” would have to choose between devoting two screens to Fox during the extremely crowded Thanksgiving frame — or taking “Anastasia” offscreen after a single week.

“It’s a weird way of putting the crunch on Fox,” said a senior exhibition exec. “I’d pass on ‘Flubber’ before I’d let them play this stunt.”

But 20th Domestic Film Group chairman Tom Sherak was philosophical about the reports. “It’s an open society, and they will do what they think is good for them. It’s not illegal.”

That’s because BV isn’t “tying” the pictures — forcing theaters to buy one film in order to get a second, more desirable one.

Buena Vista distribution president Phil Barlow, who declined to comment on the matter, said only, “I think it’s stupid for any exhibitor or distributor to discuss sales policy in the press.”

Disney has drawn criticism for its strongarm tactics against rival studios hoping to muscle in on the Mouse House’s dominance in the feature animation realm.

In addition to the “Mermaid” reissue, Disney will release a double-bill of “Hercules” and “George of the Jungle” into discount houses on Nov. 21, the same day “Anastasia” bows.

But others see the maneuvers simply as healthy competitive strategy. “They’re not doing anything out of the norm,” one film buyer said, “But they may be doing it with a little more zeal.”

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