Christmas videos: The art of building classics

As the pinnacle of unbridled consumerism, the holiday season offers great rewards to studios and other video distribcos pitching consumers the right stuff with the right support at the right time....
October 1, 1999

As the pinnacle of unbridled consumerism, the holiday season offers great rewards to studios and other video distribcos pitching consumers the right stuff with the right support at the right time.

As with the toy industry, the home video sector is heavily dependent on fourth quarter business: Sales during the months leading up to Christmas account for close to 50% of the studios’ annual video revenue, according to sources at the studios. Not only that, but Christmas videos are fighting for shelf space with both other Xmas movies and the year’s biggest theatrical titles, which are released on video during the same period.

To grab the attention of retailers and consumers, studios need to mount aggressive marketing game plans, complete with theatrical-like ad campaigns and cross-promotional tie-ins. The goal for each title is to reach that level of sales recognition in its debut year that allows a studio henceforth to market the video as a classic.

‘The beauty of a Christmas title is that once you establish it in the marketplace, you can then sell the product for the second and third year based on the ad-spend and word-of-mouth from the year before,’ says Seth Willenson, exec producer of GoodTimes’ 1998 DTV title Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer: The Movie and entertainment consultant for companies such as Scholastic, Nelvana and Lancit Media.

A survey of this year’s Christmas video tidings from the studios reveals that, to varying degrees, each is pursuing a strategy designed to yield this outcome. Of course, the first step in building a classic starts with the selection of a story that can pack maximum universal appeal and, more often than not, that means trading on the familiar.

The content

‘Christmas is all about tradition. I’m not saying there’s not room for new product, but it’s the rare title-holiday or non-holiday-that’s a new franchise that can do really well on video,’ says Dan Capone, VP of marketing and development, family entertainment at Warner Home Video. It’s advice Warner has followed religiously this year with its Christmas `99 titles: Jack Frost, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Story, Rankin/Bass-produced A Year Without Santa Claus and Merry Christmas, Teletubbies!

Merry Christmas, a double cassette Tubbies release, and Jack Frost, the CGI/live action Michael Keaton theatrical feature from Christmas `98, are the only two new titles the studio is releasing. The remaining movies are part of the Warner’s 43-title classic Christmas collection, which also includes movies starring Richie Rich and Scooby-Doo. While Jack Frost did lukewarm box-office last year, grossing a meager US$35 million, Capone is projecting that its home video debut will help to boost Warner’s share to 50% of what he estimates to be a US$100-million Christmas video market.

Rather than focusing on theatrical fare, Disney’s video arm, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, is looking to the studio’s flagship character franchises to deliver its Christmas riches this year. Its Xmas sked includes new animated DTV titles Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas and Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving. A rerelease of the live-action 1998 theatrical pic I’ll Be Home for Christmas will round out the season’s offering.

Mitch Koch, GM, North America at Buena Vista, says the decision to release the Mickey and Winnie titles this year had more to do with the way the studio’s production cycle works than with a grand plan to load up on movies starring two of the studio’s most bankable characters, but he concedes ‘whenever you can come with good material that’s themed to the Christmas season with these characters, you’re starting to fire on all cylinders.’

For studios not endowed with high-Q-score properties, distinguishing titles at the production level takes on an even greater importance. With DTV animated titles Jingle Bells, We Wish You a Merry Christmas and O’ Christmas Tree, Artisan Home Entertainment has set out to do just that. The titles, which streeted September 7 and cost US$1 million each to produce, weave stories around three classic Christmas songs and feature the voicing talents of popular TV actors and musicians, including Marie Osmond, Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander and country singer Travis Tritt. ‘We feel there’s real value in using the cast to market these titles to consumers. If a consumer picks up a video in a store and sees that Travis Tritt is doing the music and Jason Alexander and Marie Osmond are voicing the others, it provides instant credibility and recognition,’ says Glen Ross, executive VP of Artisan Home Entertainment.

The videos, which were released under Artisan’s Family Home Entertainment label, mark the company’s first foray into producing DTV Christmas titles. Its strategy, says Ross, is to release one to three new holiday titles every year, and it has already begun production on Christmas 2000 release The Tangerine Bear, based on the book by Betty and Michael Paraskevas. ‘Rather than try to create a bunch of new movies every year, what we’re doing is concentrating on a smaller group of titles so that we can create long-term assets for both us and for the retailers,’ says Ross.

Columbia TriStar Home Video has taken a similar quality-over-quantity tack with its lone new holiday title, The Nuttiest Nutcracker, which hits stores on October 19. Produced by Toronto-based Dan Krech Productions, the movie features a collection of talking nuts and fruits, and is Columbia’s first all-CGI title to be released directly to video, according CTHV marketing manager David Bynder.

Once a studio has established high production values for its new classic hopeful, the next step along the road to becoming a bona fide classic is to get the word out to consumers.

The marketing

For The Nuttiest Nutcracker, CTHV is assembling an extensive marketing strategy rivaling theatrical campaigns in its scope. Heading up the effort is a major cross-promotion with Blue Diamond Almonds, in which consumers can get a US$5 mail-in rebate with the purchase of the video and two cans of almonds. A coupon for 40 cents off cans of almonds will also come with each video. Blue Diamond, in turn, will feature Nutcracker lead Sparkle in a TV commercial. CTHV has also struck QSR deals with Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., which will see the two restaurant chains distribute 2.5 million Nutcracker toy premiums in kids meal bags featuring artwork from the movie. For CTHV, getting high-profile promotional partners on board was necessary to make ‘a statement to retailers that we’re behind this title 100%, and that we’re planning on making it into a perennial,’ says Bynder. CBS will also run the movie in its entirety in November, which Bynder says will give the video an added push during a month when people start shopping for Christmas in earnest.

Artisan has also secured broadcast support for its titles, with each airing three times during Fox Family Channel’s ’25 Days of Christmas’ promotion. The promo runs from December 1 to December 25 and will reach 72 million households.

Far from resting on their laurels, both Buena Vista and Warner have also developed marketing campaigns designed to bolster an Xmas presence at retail. Buena Vista, which will market its Christmas titles under the ‘Disney’s Home For the Holidays’ banner, is hooking up with General Mills to cross-promote the cereal company’s Lucky Charms and Cheerios brands. Two million boxes will carry artwork from Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas, and there will be an opportunity for retailers to exhibit joint cereal-video displays. In addition, a greenery promotion will see Buena Vista offering consumers a variety of cash rebates when they purchase any combination of wreaths, Christmas trees and decorations along with two ‘Home for the Holidays’ titles. ‘The goal of all our cross-promotions is to get multiple points of placement for the videos throughout the store, in addition to the main area where retailers showcase their videos,’ says Buena Vista’s Koch.

Rounding out the promo is a ‘Home For the Holidays Family Reunion Sweepstakes’ running in association with Continental Airlines. The contest gives consumers the chance to win a free trip for their families to anywhere in the U.S. Secondary prizes include a free family portrait, AT&T calling cards valued at US$250 and a giant Winnie the Pooh plush. Consumers can enter the sweepstakes at Disney’s Web site ( or via an entry form included with each Xmas title. Buena Vista, says Koch, made an effort to theme most of its promotions to the idea of families coming together for the holidays. Mattel and other licensees have also created product based on Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas, which will be available to retailers to cross-merchandise with the videos.

Unlike Buena Vista, Warner has no plans for special holiday cross-promotions, other than offering Teletubbies wrapping paper free with the purchase of the Merry Christmas Teletubbies video. However, Warner’s 43 Christmas rereleases do belong to the fourth wave of Warner’s year-long ‘Family Entertainment Century Collection’ promotion. Consumers who buy any Century Collection titles receive a savings booklet offering discounts on products and services from Continental Airlines, Healthy Choice Microwave Popcorn, Princess Cruises, Visa, Max Factor and the Hard Rock Cafe.

Warner decided not to market all of its Christmas titles together, says Capone, because new titles Teletubbies and Jack Frost will hit the market on November 2, more than a month after the Century Collection titles are released. Both Teletubbies and Jack Frost will be provided to retailers in separate merchandisers, available in a variety of sizes.

In the end, timing may be the ultimate factor in determining the success or failure of a Christmas title. And while each studio may quibble over just when the right moment is to release Christmas product, each agrees that the Christmas selling season is getting longer every year.

The timing

Warner Home Video, for example, announced its Century Collection Christmas titles, which streeted on September 28, back in April. ‘We want to give retailers every chance on earth to capitalize on the season. So if there are retailers that want to start selling Christmas in October-and there are-they have the opportunity to do so. There’s always the possibility that some of the classic titles might be overlooked once the Christmas rush hits in early November. So we try to let retailers know about these titles as early as we can,’ says Capone.

Over at Buena Vista, which has three titles streeting November 9, execs feel there is a danger of confusing the marketplace by releasing the videos too early. ‘You want to let consumers know the titles are there, get them up, and have their attention for the full selling season, but we can’t release the Christmas product any sooner, because you still have Halloween videos and promotions running at retail during that time,’ says Buena Vista’s Koch.

To Artisan’s Glen Ross, breaking too early is not a concern. The earlier the street date, he argues, the better chance new titles have at breaking through to consumers. ‘You have to realize that from Thanksgiving on, your market is getting more and more crowded because that’s when the big theatrical holiday movies debut. So, for movies that don’t have those big theatrical debuts, you at least have that window when they are the only Christmas titles that are available in the stores,’ says Ross.

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