As expected, Dick Tracy is on his way to home video this year. Touchstone Home Video will release the fourth-highest-grossing film of the summer on tape in December, priced for the rental market.

But the folks at the Disney subsidiary still aren't ready to tell the whole story about the home video fate of "Dick Tracy." By late last week, however, speculation about the tape's likely price and release date -- especially the possibility that it would be a last-minute addition to the low-priced market in November or December -- had become so pervasive that executives at Touchstone took the unusual step of blitzing the industry trade journals' fax machines with a selection of carefully worded "comments" that unveil some of the plans for the tape, with the promise of more details in the coming weeks.

Although the video's release was positioned as a response to industry rumors, it also may serve to soften the disappointment that will greet Touchstone's decision to release the film at a rental-oriented price. The decision is bad news for retailers -- and consumers -- looking for blockbuster sales-priced tapes other than the abundance of G-rated children's entertainment and R-rated movies that may make mass merchandisers and consumers nervous.

But low-priced "Dick Tracy" tapes may be on the way as well. Touchstone claims it has developed a "unique new rent-and-sell concept" for the movie; although details have not yet been revealed, it is widely expected to involve incentives and materials to help retailers sell off rental copies at reduced prices after the rental demand for the movie has peaked -- a practice that Touchstone was the first major studio to encourage.

Touchstone's silence on the tape's price was the most glaring omission in its non-announcement, considering the widespread predictions that if the tape is priced for the rental market, it will carry a price tag of $100 or higher. If it does, retailers will most likely interpret the tab as confirmation of their fears that Paramount's similar price on "The Hunt for Red October" signaled an inevitable price hike across the board.

Paramount has already suffered boycotts from some renegade retailers in protest of its move, so Touchstone has reason to want to forestall any backlash against a high price. Perhaps in anticipation of a noisy reaction against such a price, Touchstone is publicizing a series of statistics about the film's popularity: higher weekday opening grosses than "Total Recall" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," both of which have been priced for sale on tape; a 100 percent consumer awareness rating by industry analyst NRG; a Gallup poll ranking as the most widely recalled movie ad campaign of the summer; and consumer research that revealed the highest "intent to rent" rating of any Disney movie since "Three Men and a Baby."

Touchstone also claims that the tape was originally scheduled as a 1991 release but that December's "completely open" schedule of competitive rental releases looked too good to pass up. Although that month has traditionally been a slow one for new rental releases, studios have begun scheduling high-profile releases in December in hopes of providing fodder for the new VCRs under consumers' Christmas trees. This December -- deemed noncompetitive by Touchstone -- is already slated to include "RoboCop 2" and "Ghost Dad," two of the early-summer casualties of the "Dick Tracy" box office bonanza; it's doubtful that the makers and distributors of both will appreciate the reminder.

Fast Forward A December video release date for a June movie such as "Dick Tracy" would have been unheard of before last fall's rush to get summer hits "Batman" and "Ghostbusters II" on tape in time for Christmas. Two upcoming releases narrow even further the time windows deemed acceptable on video releases. "Men at Work," in which brothers Charlie Sheen and writer-director Emilio Estevez aptly play garbagemen, will appear on tape from RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video next month, less than three months after its big-screen debut; the fact that Columbia had nothing to do with its theatrical distribution -- or with any loss of big-screen revenues that might result from its early release -- may have facilitated RCA/Columbia's decision to rush its move from screen to tape.

MCA/Universal, on the other hand, has plenty to gain from generating excitement for its summer disappointment, "Back to the Future, Part III," which hits rental racks next month. Later this month, MCA/Universal will cut the price on "Part II" to $19.95 -- even though retailers stocked up on $92.95 copies of the tape only five months ago on the eve of "Part III's" big-screen release. Retailers can at least take comfort in the fact that there will be no more back-to-back "Futures" in the future.