The Seven-Year Hitch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you're a parent waiting patiently for your toddlers to grow a wee bit older before buying them one of those classic Walt Disney animated films you've seen advertised on videocassette, you might want to reconsider your plans.

With Walt Disney Home Video's limited-time only policy, which removes animated classics from the marketplace after a prescribed time period, your children may hit puberty before the title you want becomes available again--if it becomes available at all.

On April 1, Walt Disney Home Video will stop selling two of its most popular animated films on video, "The Little Mermaid" and "Peter Pan." After that, consumers will be able to buy the titles only as long as existing inventories hold out in retail stores and distributor warehouses. Estimates of how long that will be range from six months to two years.

"The Little Mermaid" and "Peter Pan" may become available again on video in five to seven years when Disney re-releases the films theatrically, but the studio's home video division isn't promising it.

"The idea is to create a mystique surrounding a classic title," said Barbara Wexler, editor of Video Software Magazine. "You can't diminish the fact that you're dealing with special titles. You have to pay some respect to them. The reason they're only available for a short period of time is so that they don't turn into run-of-the-mill titles."

"The Little Mermaid," which won critical raves and two Academy Awards for music last year, set a box-office record for animated films, grossing $85 million. Disney deemed it an instant classic, and when the video was released in May, it sold more than 10 million copies to become the top-selling video of 1990.

And "Peter Pan," about the boy who refused to grow up, has shown little signs of age even though it was first released in theaters in 1953. The fantasy grossed $29.4 million in its sixth theatrical re-release in 1989, and has sold 7 million units since coming out on video in September.

Video distributors and retailers acknowledged Disney's foresight in removing its top-selling titles from the marketplace to preserve their evergreen status as theatrical releases. "From a marketing standpoint, Disney has a real advantage: Buy it now because it's not going to be available later," said Tim Shannahan, president of the Sacramento-based V.P.D. Inc., the largest video distributor in California.

But most agreed that the practice befuddles consumers at the retail level.

"You take a Disney classic title, a 'Cinderella' for example," Shannahan said. "People know it's been available--they may even have rented it--and then they want to buy it for a gift and can't buy it at retail. The whole thing tends to confuse consumers."

By cutting off sales of "The Little Mermaid" and "Peter Pan," Disney can create demand in the children's video market for "The Jungle Book," which will be released for the first time on video in May.

A "Disappearing Classics" advertising campaign is under way to let consumers know that "The Little Mermaid" and "Peter Pan" won't be around much longer. But there is really no way to get the message across to all potential video buyers.

"I think it's a real injustice to consumers and retailers," said Jim Dobbe, vice president of sales merchandising for Wherehouse Entertainment Inc., which has 286 stores in Western states. "It's a problem at the store level because consumers don't know about it and don't understand it even when they're told. Because of that, we lose sales."

Other Disney classics that were once for sale but no longer are available on videocassette are "Robin Hood," "Pinocchio," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Lady and the Tramp." The likelihood of finding those titles in stock at your local video store is akin to stumbling over gold on the ground. "Cinderella," put on moratorium in 1989, is almost as rare. Only "Bambi," taken off the market last year, is still available in any quantity.

Executives at Disney Home Video refused to comment on their policies, but Tania Steele, a spokeswoman for the parent company, Buena Vista Home Video, said that, "Once a Disney animated classic is put back into the vaults, that's it. We release an animated classic, then it goes on the market for a limited time only, then it goes back into the vault."

When asked if such titles will ever be brought back, Steele said only, "There is no future date, no future plans to release them again." What's more, she maintained that the term moratorium , used industrywide, does not apply to Disney's classic animated films because it suggests a future re-release date.

Placing moratoriums on home video titles is nothing new. The practice began for practical reasons in the early 1980s during the home-video boom, when studios dumped a glut of new and old movie titles on the marketplace, then found that they couldn't effectively market them all at once.

"As the video industry grew, the product began to outdistance the capacity of the marketplace to handle it," said Bruce Pfander, vice president of marketing for Fox Video. "The fact is there's only so much shelf space and only so many titles that the market can accommodate. So you literally have thousands and thousands of titles and can't keep them all in inventory."

Today, moratoriums are often part of a larger marketing campaign. A title may be removed from store shelves long enough for people to believe they have missed out on the opportunity to buy it. Then, a year or so later, the title returns with shiny new packaging, a revamped marketing campaign and a lower price tag.

"We take it off the market to create the demand for it, then we bring it back by popular demand," said Herb Fischer, former marketing and sales vice president of MGM/UA Home Video who is now the president of West Coast Video Duplication. "It's almost a perception rather than a reality. It allows us to create a whole new marketing campaign. That way we get a much greater surge in sales than if we just left it there and let it roll. Otherwise, it's like Australia: Everybody knows it's there but nobody goes."

In September, Fox Video released a special 25th-anniversary edition of "The Sound of Music," featuring a newly remastered version of the film and an interview with director Robert Wise. It goes on moratorium next month and probably won't come back until Christmas.

"The way to focus marketing support is to peak interest by making the title available in one window and turning it into an event," Pfander of Fox Video said. "And the only way it can become an event is if it begins and ends."

Fischer denies that moratoriums hurt consumers. "It's not unfair to consumers because property owners have proprietary rights, and that's their lifeblood. Videos have usurped theatrical volume in movies. (The domestic box office) last year was a $5-billion business, but home video was a $10-billion business. It's incumbent on the studios and independents to exploit the product as much as they can to create a demand for it."

Entertainment analyst Tom Adams with Paul Kagan & Associates said that even Disney's more restrictive limited-time only policy is simply good business.

"It helps retailers clean out the pipeline and clear stock that might otherwise sit on the shelf," he said. "Retailers would rather have something new and heavily promoted from Disney, like 'The Jungle Book,' than they would the tail-end sales of 'The Little Mermaid' or 'Peter Pan.' "

Adams added that if a favorite title is unavailable for purchase, it can always be rented from the video store. "Sure, some kids are going to miss out on owning 'Peter Pan' and 'The Little Mermaid,' " he said. "No doubt about it. To that extent life's not fair. But life is a whole lot more fair in the video age than it ever was in the movie age."

THE DISNEY VIDEO RELEASE PATTERN

Cumulative Retail Sales of Disney Animated Classics as of January, 1991.

THEATRICAL VIDEO VIDEO TITLE RELEASE RELEASE PULLED COPIES SOLD "Robin Hood" 1973 1984 Unavailable 500,000 "Pinocchio" 1940 1985 Unavailable 800,000 "Sleeping Beauty" 1959 1986 1987 1.5 million "Lady and the Tramp" 1955 1987 1988 3.2 million "Cinderella" 1950 1988 1989 7.5 million "Bambi" 1942 1989 1990 10.5 million "Peter Pan" 1953 1990 1991 7.0 million "The Little Mermaid" 1989 1990 1991 9.0 million

SOURCE: Video Marketing News, Potomac, Md.

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