"Dances With Wolves," last year's winner of the Academy Award for best picture, arrives in video stores today attended by all the excitement befitting a smash release.
Besides boasting an Oscar pedigree (seven awards, including best direction and cinematography), Kevin Costner's western epic picks up a new laurel in the transition to video. Its shipment of 649,000 copies to stores in the United States and Canada makes it the biggest-selling video of all time in its price category.
(Price category is an important distinction. Videocassettes priced below $30 are primarily intended for consumer sales, and these can go into the millions of copies, as did "Home Alone." Higher-priced titles are destined for the rental shelves. "Dances With Wolves," like "Ghost" and "The Hunt for Red October," had a wholesale price of about $70, which translates into $100 if a consumer wanted to buy it.)
"Wolves" took the "rental-priced" sales record away from Paramount's "Ghost," which in March shipped 641,900 copies,
That's quite an achievement for any movie, and especially a western with subtitles, but there's another unusual aspect to the video release that has gone largely unnoticed. The entire three-hour running time of "Wolves" has been contained on a single cassette. A more common but more costly practice is to package lengthy movies on two cassettes, such as "The Sound of Music," also almost three hours long.
As VCR users know, the standard length of a VHS blank cassette is two hours. However, it is possible to squeeze more tape into the shell. Many companies sell T-160 blanks that are 40 minutes longer than the more common T-120s. The "Wolves" cassette is, in effect, a T-180.
The practice of putting extra-long movies on one cassette has caused consternation among some rental-store operators. They say that the thinner tape and other modifications required for the long running time contribute to premature tape damage. Such cassettes, they say, just can't hold up to the wear and tear they suffer in renters' VCRs.
In recent months, their complaints have focused on titles such as "The Hunt for Red October," "Die Hard 2" and "GoodFellas," all long movies on single cassettes.
So many factors influence the rentable life of a cassette that no one can say for certain why a particular tape was chewed up by a particular VCR. The video companies and their duplicators maintain that the rates of defects they experience run less than 1 percent and have no correlation to a movie's length.
Nonetheless, rental-store operators who have felt victimized in the past by defective tapes will doubtlessly keep a watchful eye on the condition of their copies of "Dances With Wolves." If you rent a copy, don't be surprised if the clerk examines the tape before and after you return it to check for damage.
It should be noted that Orion Home Video, the studio behind "Dances With Wolves," has expressed confidence in the physical durability of this cassette. In fact, all Orion cassettes are covered by a warranty to retailers. The company's policy (in place for almost two years) is to replace at no charge any of its cassettes found to be defective in the first 90 days of rental.
Most store owners are well aware of Orion's policy, and it's a point to keep in mind in the unlikely event that your rental transaction leads to a dispute over a damaged tape.