Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Main Attraction

Perhaps a lot of home video consumers in the early 1980s wondered why they couldn’t own or rent the Disney animated classics. The very films that defined Disney, the first things you think of when someone brings up Disney. As said BEFORE, Walt Disney didn’t believe in showing the animated classics on the small screen. He believed that re-releasing them in theaters every seven to ten years was the way to go, because he wanted these films to be those rare events. Keeping them out of reach would only increase demand, and when they’d return to theaters, people would flock to see them.

This strategy saved former flops like Pinocchio and Bambi, which broke even by the mid 1950s and got more fans and audiences. Dumbo already turned a profit on its initial release and its 1949 re-release, so Walt showed an abridged version on the Disneyland television series in 1955. Alice in Wonderland was shown on the first episode in 1954, a film that got poor reception and bombed at the box office. It wasn’t theatrically re-released in Walt’s lifetime, and he also wasn’t too fond of the film himself.

This is why they were also released on home video first in the early 1980s. In fact, Disney gave them a rental only release first in 1981, before releasing sales only versions in 1982. Since there was no established Disney animated classics “canon” back then, Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland simply weren’t in the league of animated films that wouldn’t appear anywhere else except theaters.

Ditto the package anthology features. Saludos Amigos was only theatrically re-released once, in 1949 on a double-bill with Dumbo. The Three Caballeros got a brief re-release in 1977 due to its popularity with the young adult audience like Fantasia and Alice in Wonderland. The package features were broken up, and the different segments would be released elsewhere or shown on television. The Three Caballeros and Fun & Fancy Free were released on home video in 1982, for both sale and rental.

Then-current Disney CEO Ron Miller finally had plans to release the animated classics on home video, since the home video market was changing. In 1983, Disney launched the Cartoon Classics series, a line for compilations of the classic short films. Boasting full artwork as opposed to the typical Walt Disney Home Video cover scheme, the volumes all sold well. Disney followed the series up the next year with the Limited Gold Editions and used a campaign that was the beginning of their traditional home video practices. It kept reminding consumers, “When they are gone, they’re gone.” Over 600,000 videocassettes were sold.

Walt Disney Home Video then created “The Classics” in 1984, a special line where these titles would premiere. So with all that waiting, what would Disney give us as the first prestigious Classics edition? Snow White? Bambi? Cinderella? Peter Pan? What out-of-reach Disney animated classic hit video stores on the cold morning of December 4th in 1984?

Robin Hood?

Seems like an odd choice, but the Disney management felt that Robin Hood was the most suitable title to start this new but risky line. But why? Robin Hood, out of the Disney classics, wasn’t a film that was met with great critical reception or one that was considered a “classic”. It was a title that was mostly popular with the younger set, as opposed to the best Disney classics.

Robin Hood’s lack of praise was exactly why it was the first title in this line. It was a “test the waters” experiment, to see if this new line were to work in their favor. The film also hadn’t fared particularly well in its last and only theatrical re-release in 1982 and amongst the other titles, the demand wasn’t high. It retailed for $79.95, which seems like a high price to any of us born after 1990, but high prices for videocassettes was the norm back in the 1980s. Despite being more of a rental hit than a sales hit, Robin Hood did manage to be one of the top 15 sell-through titles "ever"... Or so Disney says, according to my promotional VHS for the home video premiere of Pinocchio. (We'll get to that later!)

Since it was an animated "classic", and one of the titles that wasn't going to be shown on the small screen, it was given the tip top treatment in terms of packaging. The full, detailed artwork would be in a black, soft padded clamshell case.

Open up the clamshell case, and you see this on the inside...

Pretty neat, isn't it? The diamond was everywhere on this package. The case spine, the back of the case, the inside of it, the label itself, and it even got its own animated introduction! However, this logo definitely does not hold up and it was quickly replaced almost four years after it debuted.

Disney was taking this seriously, they knew their animated classics deserved this kind of presentation. It's own special line. Since Robin Hood did well enough, what was next? Richard Fried, who was a marketing director for Walt Disney Home Video at the time, stated that The Sword in the Stone would be next...

The Sword in the Stone, like Robin Hood, also wasn't one of the classics that was held in high regard despite its fans and the fact that it appealed more to young children than the whole family. Plus, its then-current theatrical re-release in 1983 didn't really rake in as much despite having a new Winnie the Pooh featurette attached to it. However, this plan ultimately did not go through...

The management changed at Disney in 1984. We all know the story, Michael Eisner was now CEO of the company and so forth. The rookie executives didn't share the beliefs of the veterans. Pinocchio was brought up shortly after its latest theatrical re-release occurred in Christmas of 1984. It was successful, but no hit by any means. Michael Eisner and the new executives understood where the veterans were coming from, but they realized that the re-releases weren't bringing in as much revenue as they did before and there was a demand for them. They basically felt that something like Pinocchio wouldn't make much being locked up for years until another re-release. The same went for the other titles.

Disney finally agreed to release Pinocchio on home video, and they backed it up with an impressive $1 million campaign.

A while back, I obtained a promotional VHS for the home video release that details the campaign, the marketing and interviews from everyday consumers. It's cornball enough and it smacks of Disney's rather short-sighted advertising of their classics, but it's worth a watch. I uploaded this to Dailymotion a while back so others could see what was on this rarity...

Pinocchio Promo Tape by Imaxination1980
The quality is mediocre. I apologize...

It basically shows how ready Disney was to release it. It finally hit stores on July 16th. Like Robin Hood, the cover artwork was fully detailed and it was quite beautiful.

However, the artists took the background and extended it to the spine and the back. Robin Hood only used a black background.

The videocassette even contained an exclusive trailer for The Black Cauldron, which contains a few seconds of the infamous deleted footage.

The video release was ultimately out of reach. With a $79.95 price tag, 125,000 units were moved during the summer. Disney announced a price drop for the holiday season, only to irritate consumers who bought it at the full price along with video retailers. The price dropped to $29.95, and it was promoted alongside twenty other titles. More on this next time, but the promotion helped the film. 250,000 units were sold in total, exceeding Disney's expectations. It was put on moratorium on February 28, 1986. With the success of this release, Disney was confident to really go through with the Classics plan.

They were only getting started...


On a related side note, Sleeping Beauty was released on home video on this day in 1986. It was an even more successful release and one that really set things into motion.


  1. It makes a lot of sense that "Robin Hood" was the first Walt Disney Classics video release. I have a 1986 printing of it myself.
    As for its unpopularity at the time, I made fun of that in a YouTube Poop entitled "Disney Buys Out Hanna-Barbera" (due to the film reusing animation constantly, like H-B often would.) But I used my 1991 VHS tape for the source material.

  2. You said the 1984 Walt Disney Classics logo doesn't hold up, and was replaced after only four years of use. I can see why; the music has "Moog synthesizer" written all over it, the font for "THE CLASSICS" looked very ugly and 80s-ish, and the animation and visual effects look a lot like something that could easily be created in Adobe Flash! Disney apparently thought something like that didn't seem appropriate to show before one of their treasured classics, hence the new logo's debut in 1988. But Disney still stuck with it during that period; the early 1986 print of "Alice in Wonderland" had the "Neon Mickey" Disney Home Video logo originally (probably due to them initially using a 1981 tape master), but that was rare, because Disney then quickly went and replaced it with the Classics animated logo.
    Funny thing is how they continued using the print version of the 1984 opening logo (but with "THE CLASSICS" in the fancier Lo-Type font) for quite a while after they introduced the "Sorcerer Mickey" Classics logo, but mostly on tape labels and promotional material (it can be seen on the Disney videos promotional insert that came with my 1989 Bambi VHS.)