With ticket and concession prices on the rise, $15 doesn't get moviegoers very far anymore; in many theaters it takes that much just to get two adults into the lobby. But the number 15 -- when preceded by a dollar sign -- has acquired a special resonance in the video business, thanks in large part to the number crunchers at mass merchandise and discount chains who tell video executives that prices need to be below that magic number in order for mega-units of yesterday's hits to be sold. Video executives in at least two of the major studios have taken the $15 figure to heart.

Last year Paramount Home Video became the first major studio to experiment with the $14.95 price level on a big scale, an effort that PHV General Manager Eric Doctorow labels a "great success." When none of the other majors followed suit -- in an industry in which few marketing strategies go uncopied by the competition -- it may have looked as if the studio had gone too far. But beginning next month, Paramount will release almost 50 more movies priced below $15, in monthly promotions continuing through September that will almost double the number of films the studio has released at bargain-basement prices. And Paramount will soon have some big-name company on the budget shelf: In August, MGM/UA Home Video will release a dozen films priced at $14.98.

That sounds like good news for movie buffs, but MGM/UA's titles may appeal mostly to purchasers who are more sensitive to prices than to what they get for their money. Billy Crystal's star turn in "Running Scared" and the Academy Award-nominated "Runaway Train" are the only standouts in a collection that includes both installments of the Chuck Norris "Missing in Action" epic; "Death Wish 3"; porn star Traci Lords's R-rated debut, "Not of This Earth"; and other films that will look right at home in discount stores. All 12 of the MGM/UA discount dozen have already been available on tape at higher prices.

Paramount, at least, is taking advantage of the promotional opportunities of its low-priced line to engineer the video debuts of some vintage films. Jerry Lewis shows up in two of the four new-to-video films on the way: 1961's "The Ladies' Man," which he produced, wrote, directed and starred in as the houseboy in an all-female boarding house, due next month; and "The Delicate Delinquent," a 1957 farce with Dean Martin, a September release. Also headed for discount bins are "Here Comes the Groom," Frank Capra's 1951 musical starring Bing Crosby (July), and the 1950 Bob Hope-Lucille Ball comedy "Fancy Pants" (September).

As the race to lower prices gains momentum, the only possible losers are the traditional video retailers, who lose much of the low-priced business to non-video outlets; as prices on new blockbuster rental titles go up, the price reductions on the other end are interpreted by the video retailing community as a sign of the studios' insensitivity to their ongoing role in the video phenomenon. It should come as no surprise that the other major studios are consequently taking the wait-and-see approach on low prices; executives at CBS/Fox, Warner, MCA/Universal and others have all publicly stated in recent weeks that they have no plans to lower their prices below $15.

Free What?

Linguists would need only to take one look at the oxymoronic label on the package to know that something is up; video consumers who get their copies of "The Making of 'The War of the Roses' " may have to pop the "free rental featurette" into the VCR before they can appreciate the contradiction in terms. CBS/Fox is encouraging retailers to offer the tape free of charge when "The War of the Roses" reaches the rental market next week -- a repeat of a marketing strategy that worked well for the studio this spring with the special-effects-laden "The Making of 'The Abyss.' " But shattering porcelain and burning Christmas trees are no match for underwater wizardry, so the makers of "The Making of ..." could come up with only nine minutes of the art of "War"; the tape's remaining 13-odd minutes consist of trailers promoting six other CBS/Fox releases, most of which have been on the shelf for years. The free advertising on this "free rental" puts it in the category of the free lunch.