One of the most influential and innovative home video companies will effectively cease to exist in the coming weeks, and the video business -- and the buying and renting habits of the consumers who built it -- may never be the same. MGM/UA Home Video is on its last legs as a result of Pathe Communications' recently completed acquisition of its troubled parent company, MGM/UA Communications. Among the MGM/UA assets that Pathe sold to finance the $1.36 billion acquisition are video rights to past, present and future MGM/UA films, for which Time Warner paid $125 million. While Warner will reportedly maintain an MGM/UA label for those cassettes, layoffs have already begun at MGM/UA Home video, whose operations are being folded into Time Warner.
The addition of the MGM/UA label will enable Time Warner to dominate the video business to an unprecedented degree. Time Warner had recently gained the No. 1 position among videocassette suppliers after the merger of Time and Warner brought together Warner Home Video, HBO Video and the leftovers of such labels as Cannon Video and Karl-Lorimar that had already been absorbed by both parties. After MGM/UA's tapes are added to the mix, according to some estimates, Time Warner will have its corporate fingerprints on one out of every five videocassettes on video store shelves.
While there's nothing new about Time Warner's apparent intention to take over the information/entertainment world, the repercussions of its latest move could have a direct impact on consumers -- especially those who appreciate the immediate access to classic Hollywood films that home video can and should provide. MGM/UA Home Video, blessed with the richest film library in Hollywood -- and saddled with one of the least successful production arms among major studios -- had no choice but to make the most of the vintage riches that lay in its vaults. By releasing those movies regularly, at low prices ($20-$30), MGM/UA Home Video managed to get a significant portion of film history into the hands of contemporary viewers.
Warner, on the other hand, has focused primarily on new releases and has typically priced its occasional selections from its catalogue in the $60 range, deterring all but serious collectors and giving wary retailers one more excuse for not stocking the tapes in the first place. While the MGM/UA movies that are on the market are not likely to disappear, Warner's track record with its own catalogue indicates that the steady stream of low-priced vintage movies -- some classics, some simply curiosities, but all worthy of release -- is about to dry up.
It's not quite over yet, however; three of what will most likely be MGM/UA's final promotions of classic films will reach stores in the coming weeks, bringing a total of 59 vintage titles -- some new to video, others at new low prices -- to the market priced at $19.98 each. Arriving in stores next week, the "MGM/UA Masterpieces" collection includes three movies new to tape: "The Hucksters," starring Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr; "Too Hot to Handle," with Gable and Myrna Loy; and Vincente Minnelli's "Tea and Sympathy," featuring Kerr and much of the rest of the original Broadway cast.
An early December promotion of classic comedies will also feature a trio of new video releases: "The Road to Hong Kong," the last in the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby series of "Road" pictures; Woody Allen's screen debut, "What's New, Pussycat?," starring Peter O'Toole; and "The Long, Long Trailer," an attempt by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to take their "I Love Lucy" chemistry to the big screen.
Finally, MGM/UA will offer another installment in its "Leading Ladies" series next month. The latest batch features the video debuts of star turns from the likes of Judy Garland ("The Clock"), Joan Crawford ("Sadie McKee" and "Humoresque"), Jean Harlow ("Bombshell"), Grace Kelly ("The Swan") and Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn (together in "The Children's Hour").
The Pathe acquisition and its various side deals will likely bring an end to the MGM tradition; the sheer volume of the next few weeks' releases would suggest that they might have known they were running out of time. The rest of us can only hope that the Warner decision-makers will adapt to the MGM video philosophy. If not, at least the last caretakers of the MGM lion can know that they went out with an appropriate roar and that their efforts to make the video store a more interesting place to visit will be missed.