Sunday, October 21, 2012

Bringing The Magic Home

Walt Disney Home Video certainly got off to a rather slow start, but in the mid-1980s, the launching of the Classics line would start a new, successful era for the company and for their animation studio...

The Disney executives saw how successful an animated feature could be on home video, as opposed to a theatrical re-release. However, Pinocchio ultimately grossed $13 million on home video, less than what the latest re-release took in ($21 million), but Disney was satisfied nonetheless. It was withdrawn and put on moratorium in February 1986, a month after a certain promotion ended. One that would help the video sell.

The $29.95 price drop for Pinocchio would apply to 20 other titles, which would all be part of a special holiday promotion Disney launched called “Making Your Dreams Come True”. The other titles consisted of re-issues of live-action titles that were currently available, but in a new packaging scheme. The Walt Disney Home Video logo and Mickey Mouse artwork would be significantly smaller compared to the earlier releases, and the artwork would take up more of the cover.

Other titles were special-made collector’s videos that featured sequences of Disney films, both animated and live-action. One of these releases is the rather odd The Walt Disney Comedy and Magic Revue, which feels like a cheesy variety program showcasing clips from classic Disney films. It’s as if Walt Disney Home Video was flat out saying, “Yeah some of these aren’t yet, but here’s some footage!” See for yourself.

The most notable title in this promotion was the repackaged release of Dumbo, which was now a Classics edition with deluxe treatment artwork and the diamond all over the packaging.

I felt I'd show my Betamax copy,
my VHS copy has faded artwork.

However, I always felt that this was turned into a Classics release at last minute: The tape itself opens with the Walt Disney Home Video logo, as opposed to the Classics logo. Perhaps it was nothing more than an editing mistake, but it could’ve been scheduled for a non-Classics releases. Needless to say, this is the first release of “that older pink cover”. Perhaps at such a lower price (it retailed for $84.95 up until then), it was easier for consumers to add to their collection alongside the seemingly out-of-reach Robin Hood and Pinocchio.

So what would come next? Sleeping Beauty was considered, since the theatrical re-release was coming up for March 1986. In the meantime, they released what was planned to be the second Classics release: The Sword in the Stone. The packaging was a bit different this time around. The clamshell wasn’t padded, and the diamond logo was not embossed inside. However, the logo is still all over the packaging. It was quietly released on March 25, 1986 for the typical price, $79.95.

Two months later, Disney launched the “Wonderland Sale” promotion, and the centerpiece was the fifth Classics release: Alice in Wonderland. This was the first time it hit home video after dropping out of print three years earlier. For the first time, it was in a cardboard slipcover case. The other titles in the sale (live-action titles and cartoon compilations) would also be packaged this way.

Disney was in need of another hit to replicate Pinocchio’s success, something that would be a hot seller. Sleeping Beauty took in $15 million, which wasn’t anything to write home about. Re-releases had been garnering less and less over the last couple of years, and Pinocchio did take in a good amount. The next big release in the Classics line would be none other than Sleeping Beauty, but unlike Pinocchio, it’s release would be closer to the holidays. Disney literally took full advantage of this.

In "Hi-Fi Stereo"!

They went all out with a $6 million marketing campaign for the release and all the other titles around it: “Bring Disney Home For Good!”

The promotion kicked off on October 14, 1986 when Sleeping Beauty hit stores. Disney adapted a new packaging scheme: White clamshell cases with removable artwork.

And the spine artwork was slightly changed for the Classics editions...

This would the norm for all future clamshell releases. The previous Classics editions were also re-issued, some of which had been in the vault such as Pinocchio and Robin Hood. All of them were priced at $29.95, like Sleeping Beauty. Disney also released all six of them in a collector’s box set, one that’s not too easy to find these days. It cost a whopping $179.70 back then, and this artwork was never again released.

The artwork itself on the box is a bit questionable, almost like watered down versions of the character models from the cover artwork. The images feel a bit cluttered too, but the best thing about this box is the top.

The Classics logo looks nice and eye-catching, though the font for Classics does look a bit like the Coca-Cola font. Ironically, Disney would do promotional tie-ins with them, which included a Classics box set in 1988. Other titles surrounded the Classics title premiere, such as the first volume in the highly successful Disney Sing Along Songs line (what 90s kid didn’t own at least one?) and more obligatory cartoon compilations alongside live action classics.

Sleeping Beauty completed trumped Pinocchio in sales. Over one million units were sold, becoming one of the best-selling home video titles of all time. The other titles in the promotion added to that, making it the biggest and most successful home video campaign in history. The Disney executives saw that the industry had changed. Consumers were willing to buy these films, especially families, on home video. The overall gross of the Sleeping Beauty video doubled what it made in its last theatrical re-issue, unlike Pinocchio.

With a lower price and lots of marketing, a Disney animated classic would sell extremely well and even possibly break few records and compete with the current blockbuster hits on home video. From there, the mindset changed. The next Classics releases would be backed by massive marketing campaigns, and as such, they would do exceptional business.

Next in line was Lady and the Tramp, which did take in $31 million in its 1986 theatrical re-release, more than what most of the Disney classics were making at the time. It was the logical choice for the fall 1987 title. What happened? It broke records for pre-orders (over one million) and ultimately became the best-selling home video title at the time with over three million units sold.

The video sales of the Classics were certainly a big help to the animation industry, and Disney’s quest to get their critical and box office power back. They were especially enthusiastic after Don Bluth’s An American Tail not only became the highest grossing animated film on initial release, but also sold over one million units on home video months later, rivaling Sleeping Beauty. Disney executives should’ve listened to Roy E. Disney, he knew it was wise to keep the animation studio alive.

Lady and the Tramp’s sales certainly showed that there was a large audience for animation, one that Disney didn’t get with The Black Cauldron or most of the re-issues of their classics. With that, and An American Tail beating them at the box office, the company had to strike back with an all-new animated film. That particular film would be Oliver & Company, which debuted in November 1988, months after the runaway success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Meanwhile, Cinderella was released on home video on October 4, 1988, following its successful 1987 theatrical re-release.

It topped Lady and the Tramp, over seven million units were sold. Like the last two titles, it was backed by a huge campaign that would be a collaboration with Coca-Cola. Disney had their guns loaded, big time. Tons of cassettes were sold, and they even had a nice limited edition box set like the ones they released in 1986 and 1987 respectively. This box set, however, also contained some non-Classics titles.

The packaging scheme changed for Cinderella. The headings would no longer say “Walt Disney’s” (Robin Hood was the exception with “Walt Disney Productions’” and The Sword in the Stone with just “Disney’s”, later issues had the “Walt Disney’s” heading), they would say “Walt Disney’s Classic”. For post-Walt films, it would say “A Walt Disney Classic”. The big Classics diamond logo wouldn’t be on the back cover. The videos also sported a lovely new introduction, with its opening animation taken from their then-new Walt Disney Home Video logo.

This is actually an early version of the logo that was only used for this one release, though it did randomly show up on titles released years later. Perhaps Disney didn’t care for the color scheme, that’s why the next Classics release would contain a slightly altered one.

More importantly, the videocassette featured a trailer for Oliver & Company. The Classics release of Pinocchio contained a trailer for The Black Cauldron, but Sleeping Beauty didn’t contain any trailers because: a) Most Disney videocassettes didn’t have previews at the beginning, and b) Disney didn’t have anything new for the holiday 1986 season, animation-wise. With Cinderella, it was perfect timing.

Oliver & Company would prove to be a box office smash, beating out Don Bluth’s An American Tail and his latest film, The Land Before Time at the domestic box office with an enormous amount for its time. So with the runaway success of that, would Disney release it on home video? They didn’t...

Seems strange, doesn’t it? Universal didn’t hesitate to release An American Tail on home video right after its theatrical release, and it was a huge success for them. Again, the tape rivaled Sleeping Beauty’s record-breaking home video gross. Disney still had felt like the newer films had to be more exclusive events. It’s no surprise that the most recent Disney animated film available on home video happened to be a film that was over a decade old.

The Fox and the Hound wasn’t released on video because Disney didn’t release the animated films on video in the early 1980s and they were just getting into the market, and The Black Cauldron wasn’t released on home video for obvious reasons. The Great Mouse Detective? Also kept from video. Disney wouldn’t release a recent animated film on home video, they wanted to focus on the older films. They felt that re-releasing the recent films would benefit them, despite being released in the era of home video. Many 80s kids have mentioned this before, remembering the days when they wondered “Where’s Oliver & Company? How come it’s not on video?” in 1988 and 1989. This is why you 80s kids had to wait another eight years for the film to come out on home video.

You’d think with the success of An American Tail on home video, Disney would do the same for their current animated blockbuster. Oliver & Company wouldn’t appear again until a theatrical re-release in 1996, which wasn’t much of a success. When it came to home video months later, it didn’t do particularly. Disney learned a lesson, they should’ve released it as a Classics edition sometime in 1989 while the film was still a hot property. By 1996, the film was seriously dated. If they released it on home video in 1989, they could’ve sold millions of units and built up buzz for the next film.

For fall 1989, Disney released Bambi, since it did well in its recent theatrical re-release (1988). It streeted on September 28th, and once again it was backed by a huge marketing campaign. Over ten million units were moved, making it one of the top-selling home video titles of all time. The top spot happened to be held by Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Bambi would also be the first title to have promotional tie-ins: A rebate was offered if a consumer were to send in two proofs of purchase of Crest toothpaste. Who would’ve thought it?

Gotta love the pandering, but hey... Prototype artwork at the end!

The Bambi videocassette also contained a trailer for The Little Mermaid, much like the Cinderella video. The trailer has what sounds like a rough mix of “Under the Sea” and an early logo for the film that was originally used in a demo reel in 1988. This can be seen on the film’s 2006 Platinum Edition DVD.

Then in the holidays of 1989, we all know what happened...

The Little Mermaid became the highest grossing animated film on initial release, got two Oscars and got rave critical reception. Disney did some research at various movie theaters, finding out that consumers were willing to buy on home video whenever, holidays or not. Disney missed that with Oliver & Company, so for the spring of 1990, they would release The Little Mermaid as the next Classics title.

The Little Mermaid hit home video on May 18, 1990. The release was highly successful, a whopping ten million units were sold. And before you make a joke about the cover artwork, no this release was not banned. There was a small controversy surrounding the artwork because a single person wanted it banned from her local supermarket. Now let’s put that to rest and stop claiming that the release was banned. It wasn’t. Also, unlike Bambi, there were no promotional tie-ins, oddly enough.

This would also be the first time since 1986 where there would be more than one new Classics release. On September 21st, Walt Disney Home Video released Peter Pan, fresh off of its successful 1989 theatrical re-release. There was a promotional tie-in with Nabisco, which Disney would later use for future home video releases.

Now Disney released this as the fall 1990 title for obvious reasons, but in all honesty, they should’ve released The Rescuers instead. That’s right, The Rescuers, the little 1977 film from Disney that people seem to forget. That was theatrically re-released in 1989 as well, probably to get audiences geared up for The Rescuers Down Under. Had they released this in fall 1990, it could’ve helped The Rescuers Down Under score a bigger opening weekend than it did.

Of course, The Rescuers Down Under would be an underperformer at the box office. Jeffrey Katzenberg saw the disappointing opening weekend take, and he had all the marketing for the film pulled. It could’ve garnered word of mouth and made a good amount, but he had no faith in it. Competition was heavy on top of it. It was a premature decision, and one that held a very ambitious film back from being the success it should’ve been. This is why The Rescuers oddly appeared on home video after its sequel. In Europe, it was the other way around.

Peter Pan was also a massive success, selling seven million units. Both The Little Mermaid and Peter Pan went into moratorium in April 1991. This strategy would prove to be highly successful.

This was the birth of the vault. Like the theatrical re-releases, putting them out for a limited time paved the way for successful sales. Titles like Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland and The Sword in the Stone weren’t put on moratorium. They were constantly re-issued with slightly changed packaging schemes, and were given brand new artwork (sans Alice) in 1989. Initially hesitant with the home video market, it proved to be a great success for the company and played a great role in shaping the Second Golden Age of Animation which of course lead to... The Disney Renaissance.


  1. Ah, the Disney Classics VHS tapes. One of my pet topics. I still have a bunch of them from my childhood and they all play well. I even have a 1985 VHS copy of "Pinocchio," complete with the black padded clamshell case and the trailer for "The Black Cauldron!"
    I do agree; a Classics release of "Oliver & Company" WOULD have been a good idea! I could easily imagine the animated "Walt Disney Classics" logo appearing before the movie.
    Also worth of note, when Dumbo had its cover artwork updated in 1989, it still had the same description on the back as the 1985 release!

    1. I'd also like to mention, my Robin Hood VHS tape from 1991 also has that early version of the Sorcerer Mickey "Walt Disney Classics" logo as well! Mine must be a later printing from late 1991 or 1992...

  2. I just purchased the Classics box set that you mention here. I can’t find anything about it elsewhere on the internet and only one person selling it on eBay. Do you have any more information on it?