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Buena Vista Home Entertainment: A Very Lucky Accident Indeed

When one thinks of animated videos, one thinks of Disney. Ilene Hoffman takes us inside to meet the key players behind the phenomenon that has influenced the entire industry.

This month, Walt Disney Pictures is releasing an all new animated film featuring those highly familiar characters Belle and her beloved Beast. But family audiences won't be flocking to multiplex theaters to witness this cinematic event; rather they'll be cozying up on overstuffed sofas to view the movie in the privacy of their own homes.

Forget the elaborate pre-shows at Disney's El Capitan Theater. Forget THX sound and a movie house full of delightfully screaming five year-olds and their parents. Forget also the long lines at the box office and the candy counter. With this latest release, Disney hopes to show that home video can hold its own with theatrical features. "Years ago, direct-to-video was equated with something that was not good enough to be released in theaters, so it was just released on video," explains Robin Miller, the Head of Worldwide Product Development for Disney's home video division, Buena Vista Home Entertainment (BVHE). "Now videos can stand up alongside movies."

New characters re-animate a franchise in Disney's direct-to-video Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas. © Walt Disney Home Video.

The History of Buena Vista Home Entertainment

In the early 1980s the home video industry was in its infancy. The preferred way to see a movie was still on the big screen. Would-be couch potatoes stood in long popcorn lines using their shiny, new VCR's primarily to record the television shows they were missing. Nearly two decades later, however, the home video business is booming, grossing $15 billion a year within the United States in both sell-through and rental properties. Disney seems to be leading the way. In fact, the company has the top video sale of all time -- namely, The Lion King which sold over 30 million units.

According to Marcelle Abraham, Executive Director of Public Relations for BVHE, Disney pioneered the video sell-through business with the release of such classic films from the Disney vault as Bambi, Mary Poppins, and Snow White -- films very few young people had seen on the big screen but could now enjoy in their own living rooms.

Direct-to-Video Sequels

Success with these products coupled with the video releases of more current, animated movies such a Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame soon gave way to the creation of direct-to-videos (or DTVs) -- films created especially for release on video. Unlike their predecessors, these films would never even see the big screen, for Disney did not think they had to. "We launched our direct-to-video division with The Return of Jafar, " states Cheryl Glenn, BVHE senior manager of public relations. "It was a happy accident that sold over 10 million units in the Spring of 1994."

The Return of Jafar was never intended to be a movie sequel to Aladdin. Rather, the story was composed of the first five episodes of the Aladdin animated television series produced by Walt Disney Television Animation. Because the episodes told a complete story in roughly 90 minutes, Disney decided to release them on video as a single movie. The success of this decision launched a new division within TV animation which develops and produces animated films specifically intended for direct-to-video release.

As of now, the division has built on Jafar's precedent and primarily produced sequels to the recent animated features. This marriage of sequels to video is a new and very lucrative business for Disney, a watershed in home entertainment. As a result, Disney has now placed all of their feature animated properties -- both old and new -- into development as sequels. Miller believes this was a very smart business decision. "Feature Animation (the division that produces the big budget theatrical films) has tons of films in development. It is not their interest to create sequels to their films. We understand they don't want to do it, so we'll do it. And we have the full blessing of the feature animation group," she says.

Currently in production is a sequel to The Lion King titled Simba's Pride and a sequel to Pocahontas titled Journey to a New World. On August 5, Disney released Pooh's Grand Adventure, The Search for Christopher Robin which Sharon Morrill, Vice President of Direct-to-Videos at Walt Disney Television Animation, describes as the studio's first unique direct-to-video product. "Winnie the Pooh has never had a long form story told before," she states. "Even if it was a feature length movie, the feature length movie was comprised of three short stories. But this is the first time Winnie the Pooh has ever been told in a longer 65 minute format."

The Return of Jafar was the

Christmas Belle

Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas is the latest direct-to-video incarnation from Buena Vista Home Entertainment. A "midquel," this holiday story takes place in the middle of the original film, after the Beast rescues Belle from the menacing wolf pack but before he gifts her with the gigantic library.

"It tells more of how the Beast became a beast, what happened on that particular Christmas," reveals Miller. A new villain, a fully computer-generated, evil pipe organ named Forte, voiced by Tim Curry, has become the Beast's confidant and feels threatened by his master's growing relationship with Belle. "Forte doesn't want the beast to become human again because he feels he won't need him anymore, that he'll just be a mediocre court composer," Miller explains. To ensure his high status, Forte plots to rid the castle of Belle and thus, sever her relationship with the Beast. While we know from the original movie that Belle and the Beast will eventually live happily ever after, The Enchanted Christmas gives audiences another opportunity to spend time with characters they have come to know and love. Thus far, Disney's mission in the direct-to-video business has been to capitalize on the consumers' desire to see their cherished characters in new stories and adventures. "We look at a property like Beauty and the Beast, we look at all the letters that kids have written us and decide that we need to create a whole new movie that reprises the original characters and bring this out on video," Miller says. "The videos are really based on the Disney characters that audiences hold dear." For Miller and Morrill, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas is a testament to the high quality and huge appeal these videos hold. The project has attracted back all of the members of the original voice cast as well as such star newcomers as Curry, Bernadette Peters and Paul Rubens. Paige O'Hara who returns as the voice of Belle, feels this new film is just as exciting and appealing as the first. "I used to joke that the title should really be called Indiana Belle because the story is really an action-adventure," says O'Hara. "Belle almost gets killed twice. It's a lot of fun. And it was very exciting to be back again. I think this film is going to be terrific." Other direct-to-video projects, Aladdin and the King of Thieves (released August, 1996) and a future sequel to Toy Story, have lured back their original voice talents as well. Robin Williams again provided the voice for the outrageous Genie, while Tom Hanks and Tim Allen will reprise their vocal roles of dolls Woody and Buzz Lightyear respectively. In addition to top-notch voice talent, the videos have also drawn the cream of the crop in terms of writers, composers and lyricists. According to Morrill, some of the projects feature Grammy Award-winning lyricists and Academy Award-winning composers and songwriters. Rachel Portman, who composed the music for The Enchanted Christmas, won this year's Academy Award for her score of Emma.

Morrill believes that several factors are responsible for attracting star talent to direct-to-video projects. "I think it's partly Disney, partly it's Disney animation and partly, it is an attraction to the actual property," she remarks. "Maybe someone loved Beauty and the Beast, or they loved The Little Mermaid, or loved The Lion King and they'd love to work on the sequel. It gives them a chance to put their stamp on the property. Plus, a lot of them have children and they want to be able to do something for their kids."

While children appear to be the target audience for the videos, Morrill cautions against viewing the films as solely designed for youngsters. Like the theatrical animated features, Disney's direct-to-videos are intended to delight everybody. "People always ask, `what's your audience?'," says Morrill. "I think people always think we're catering to children. We're not catering to just children. It's definitely family entertainment. A great story will translate to all ages, from the grandparent all the way to the young child."

Disney's August release of Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin marks the first time that the Winnie the Pooh character has ever been shown in a longer, 65 minute format story. © Walt Disney Home Video.

Production Quality

Disney assures that the quality of The Enchanted Christmas and other direct-to-video releases is equal to other studios' theatrical animation. A large part of this is due to the talented animators and artists who produce the films at Disney's wholly-owned animation studios overseas. The company currently has three studios: one in Japan, one in Australia and the newest one in Canada with dual locations in Vancouver and Toronto. Simba's Pride is being produced in Australia, while Pocahontas: The Journey to a New World is primarily being made in Japan, "although there are a couple of other studios that are also helping out," adds Morrill.

Originally, the three overseas animation studios were designed to produce the company's animated television series. But with direct-to-video being high on the priority list, Australia, Japan and Canada are now producing feature-length films. The Canadian studio produced The Enchanted Christmas in just 16 months, a real record considering most theatrical animated features can take anywhere between three and five years to complete. The shorter schedule is due primarily to the fact that the direct-to-video sequels do not start from scratch. Characters and background designs are already available from the original movies.

"We take advantage of the research that was already done by Feature Animation," says Laurel Whitcomb, Vice President of Publicity for Walt Disney Television Animation. "For Simba's Pride we don't have to first design Pride Rock. It's already been done." Whitcomb believes that once the overseas animation studios begin work on original direct-to-video properties (properties which are not based on existing Disney characters), the production schedule may stretch. As of now, Disney direct-to-video has 45 films in development, some of which are original projects. Morrill hopes to start production on their first original production sometime next year.

Audience Appeal

Naturally, the studio expects that these new features will be as popular as the classics, that families will want to own them as much as they want to own Cinderella or Pinocchio. Purchasing, and thereby owning, the Disney classics has become "a habit for consumers," says Abraham. "Children watch them over and over again."

Miller feels that the videos enable audiences to treasure the Disney classics. "Adults and kids feel that they are viewing something that is very special," she says. But there is more behind the success of Disney home videos than the mere collecting of treasures. By employing sophisticated marketing strategies as well as promoting the videos' limited releases, Buena Vista Home Entertainment has created a sense of purchasing urgency in the minds of consumers.

Director Andy Knight (pointing) and Layout Director Ricardo Durante review a Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas storyboard at Disney's Canada Studio. © Walt Disney Home Video.

Miller asserts that like the theatrical blockbusters, video releases need to be viewed as events. It is not enough to place a videotape in a nicely illustrated box and hope that people will flock to the nearest chain department store to buy it. Rather, says Miller, "We create boxed sets for videophiles who enjoy collecting. We create events with mass media advertising and tie-ins, TV advertising, print and billboard. We do whatever is necessary."

Just as films will not be out in the theaters forever, so Disney videos cannot adorn the shelves of video stores indefinitely. According to Miller, the limited release of the videos is not merely the by-product of a clever marketing campaign, nor is it directly intended to threaten consumers, forcing them to purchase something now rather than later. Instead, the limited release is simply due to the studio's moratorium policy on animated classics. A Disney animated film will make its usual run of theatrical to video and then go into the vault for seven years to be released again when a new generation of two to seven year-olds emerges.

"The Little Mermaid is a great example of this," cites Abraham. "It came out on video in the Spring of 1990. Now there's a whole new generation of young people who haven't seen it." Disney is re-releasing The Little Mermaid this month in theaters in celebration of its tenth theatrical anniversary. Audiences can be sure it will hit the video stores again shortly thereafter. According to Miller, there are a lot of people out there who do not own a copy of this film and can't wait to get their hands on it.

While the re-release of The Little Mermaid appears timely and strategically planned, most of the Disney classics are not re-released on a systematic basis. Just recently, consumers had the opportunity to purchase Bambi and Sleeping Beauty in that order. Now The Jungle Book is available. To the average consumer, this seems fairly random, and Miller assures "there's not a science to it."

In selecting which classic film to make available at any given time, Miller explains that Disney "looks at the library, the competition, what appeals to audiences. It's not an exact science. We have to examine every factor in the market place. It would be easier if it were more formulaic. A lot of analysis goes into the releases."

Inbetweening animator Troy Quane works at Disney's Canada Studio, on a scene for Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas. © Walt Disney Home Video.

Its Own Art Form

As one of the largest divisions in the Walt Disney Company and also one of the largest revenue-generating divisions, Buena Vista Home Entertainment continues to legitimize home video as an art form in and of itself, not just as a natural stage in the life of a theatrical release. "Years ago we were in the movie-distributing business," Miller says. "We still are, but now we're also in the movie-making business."

Will videos ever replace the big screen? Miller doesn't think so. "There is no replacement for being in a theater screaming with 300 other people just as there is no replacement for cuddling up in front of the television in your furry slippers, fast-forwarding to the favorite parts and turning the film on and off at your leisure," she says. "There's the intimacy of the home experience and there's the social experience of the theater."

Like Belle and the Beast who learn to get along in the castle, theatrical and video releases can co-exist. "There's an appetite for both," assures Miller, "and that's really wonderful."

Ilene Hoffman was most recently Director of Development for Turner Feature Animation, having worked on the film Cats Don't Dance. Prior to Turner, she was Manager of Development, Motion Pictures at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons. Ilene earned her B.A. in English literature from Brown University. She is now writing for film and television while pursuing a Masters in English at Middlebury College.

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