Sales receipts for Walt Disney's videocassette release of "Fantasia" multiplied faster over the holidays than the horde of pail-toting brooms conjured up by the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Unavailable on videocassette until November, "Fantasia" has already sold 13 million units to distributors, forcing Disney at one point to stop taking orders because copies couldn't be made fast enough.
By the end of the month, the 50-year-old Disney vision blending animation and classical music will likely become the top-selling video title of all time.
The success of the Disney classic, however, raises questions for film lovers about other vintage movies that have never been released on videocassette:
* "Annie Get Your Gun," the 1950 film version of the Irving Berlin Wild West musical with Betty Hutton and Howard Keel.
* "Cavalcade," the 1933 best-picture Oscar winner.
* "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the 1943 version of the Hemingway classic starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.
* The '40 and '50s "Ma and Pa Kettle" series starring Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride.
* "The Wings of Eagles," the 1957 film directed by John Ford starring John Wayne as a World War I aviator.
"When home video began a dozen years ago, there were people painting rosy pictures of the fact that someday old-movie buffs would have this wonderful world of videos and stores where you could go and get anything you wanted and every movie would be out and wouldn't that be great," said film historian and critic Leonard Maltin, who edits an annual TV movie and video guide of 19,000 titles.
"It hasn't happened. And it's not going to happen, because many of the big distributors just don't want to be bothered by old movies."
Studio archives are stocked with thousands upon thousands of unreleased movie titles. MGM/UA Home Video controls the world's largest film library, with 4,000 MGM/UA and pre-1949 Warner Bros. movie titles. Of those, 3,000 have not been released on video. Of Republic Pictures Home Video's 1,400 movies and serials, 900 are not on video. Of Turner Home Entertainment's 757 RKO films, 500 are not on video.
And those video companies are considered far and away the leaders in releasing old titles. RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, MCA/Universal Home Video and CBS/Fox Video have all been accused of sitting on their vast film assets.
"Certainly, there's a reason for that rap," said CBS/Fox marketing director Mindy Pickard. "We've got new titles at CBS/Fox that are so incredible (that) we do a lot of business on them. There's only so much you can work on, only so many titles the market can bear."
"Fantasia," one of the titles most requested by consumers before its video release, was finally put out on video because the Disney studio is planning to bring "Fantasia" back to theaters with new animated segments--Walt Disney's original concept for the film, before its poor initial showing at the box office. "Fantasia" will be available to video distributors only through January before being pulled off the market--never to be released in its current form again, the studio says.
Many classic movie titles are regularly aired on television because the financial rewards are higher. Those same films, however, are often kept off the video market because studios believe there isn't a big enough audience interested in owning those movies to justify the expense of transferring, packaging and marketing them.
MCA/Universal, which owns rights to 3,500 Universal and pre-1948 Paramount titles, has drastically cut back on its older video releases. In 1987, the company put out 22 previously unavailable vintage films; the number dropped to 17 in 1988, 14 in 1989, four in 1990 and two last year. Among the unreleased titles are the early Bing Crosby movies "Blue Skies," "We're Not Dressing," "Anything Goes" (1936), "Rhythm on the Range" and "Welcome Stranger."
Instead, MCA/Universal is releasing more low-budget, made-for-cable thrillers on video.
"Our strategy is to maximize revenues," said MCA/Universal executive vice president Louis Feola. "As a major supplier, you put your resources behind the properties that will generate the biggest return on your investment."
Notable films that were released on video years ago often disappear from the marketplace when their licensing agreements run out. The studio owners of those films have the option to find a new licenser or may release them on their own, but unless they were big sellers the first time around they are generally left languishing. Among them:
* "How Green Was My Valley," John Ford's 1941 best picture Oscar winner starring Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O'Hara.
* "Laura," the 1944 classic mystery directed by Otto Preminger starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney.
* "A Letter to Three Wives," Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1949 best director/script Oscar winner with Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern and Linda Darnell.
* "Two for the Road," Stanley Donen's 1967 marital tour de force starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.
* "Valley of the Dolls," Mark Robson's unintentionally campy 1967 adaptation of the Jacqueline Susann potboiler featuring Sharon Tate and Patty Duke.
Although these films are not being sold on video, a handful of them--"Laura," "Two for the Road," "Valley of the Dolls"--are available on laser disc. Because lasers offer better picture and sound quality than videotape and are more durable, movie buffs, who are the major buyers of laser discs, generally are willing to pay a premium for pristine editions of classics.
"The home video companies are most interested in new releases," said Norman Scherer, owner of the New York specialty outfit Video Oyster, which trades in the estimated 4,000 movie titles once available but now removed from the video market. Last week, Scherer sold a used copy of "Two for the Road" for $300, and one of "Laura" for $350.
"Laser-disc companies, meanwhile, want something different for their consumers," Scherer said. "They want to offer titles that are not available on VHS as another way to lure people to laser."
Still more old movie titles have been held back or pulled off the video market because of the expense in negotiating legal clearances for music and story rights.
"Certain film products are very difficult to clear because the rights holders, in some cases, want an exorbitant amount of money that may not be realistic given what the income to the studios will be for the title," said Herb Fisher, president of West Coast Video Duplicating and former president of MGM/UA Home Video.
Despite ongoing negotiations, MGM/UA has been blocked from releasing "Annie Get Your Gun" because of red tape in obtaining music rights from the Berlin estate. MCA/Universal has said that it would be too expensive to buy the music rights to release its library of old Crosby movies.
"I talked to (director) Henry Jaglom," said Steve Feltes, president of the mail-order company Evergreen Video. "All his films are on video except for a Tuesday Weld film with Orson Welles (and Jack Nicholson) called 'A Safe Place.' And (Jaglom) said it would cost about $100,000 to get music clearance on it, and the feeling is it's not going to generate $100,000 in video business."
Studios have often gotten around fat rights fees by substituting songs on the video release. "The Great Gatsby" video doesn't have Berlin's songs, and in the John Hughes comedy "The Breakfast Club," Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" was replaced with a version sung by an unknown, more affordable crooner.
"I believe what happens now," said Maltin, "is when a movie is being made they anticipate home-video release and try to clear all rights ahead of time forever."
At one time, the future of old movies on video appeared bright. In the early 1980s, movie studios rushed to cash in on their voluminous libraries of films. Limited-time deals were struck with video distributors that sprang up overnight, and movie titles were dumped into the marketplace willy-nilly by such unlikely companies as Fotomat. The scattershot release patterns, however, favored low-budget exploitation fare, leaving movie buffs scratching their heads.
"You couldn't get Greta Garbo in 'Camille' or 'Anna Karenina,' but you could get 'Hospital Massacre' or Lou Ferrigno in 'The Adventures of Hercules.' You couldn't get MGM's (Oscar-winning) version of 'King Solomon's Mines' from the 1950s, but you could get the silly remake with Richard Chamberlain," said George Feltenstein, vice president of sales and marketing for MGM/UA.
By the late 1980s, the earning potential of the home-video business was clear--and it wasn't in old or B movies. Star-driven, A titles fresh from the local theater lifted the video industry above the film industry in annual revenues. (Domestic box-office revenue for 1991 has been estimated at $4.7 billion, down from 1990's record $5 billion. But those numbers are dwarfed by rising revenues in home-video rental and sales, estimated at more than $15 billion for 1991, up from $14.5 billion a year before, according to the New York research firm Alexander & Associates.)
In the ensuing excitement over huge profits from the sales of mega-hit video releases, which were reduced to low sell-through prices, the studios' libraries of vintage movies went largely overlooked.
"What I find frustrating about this is there seems to be an attitude from the companies releasing older video titles that aims everything at a sort of general cross-section of the American public," said Feltes, whose Evergreen Video specializes in rare and foreign videos. "There's a core audience looking for the movie that gets dumped for a general audience who maybe you can persuade to buy the movie.
"In other words, the films of Bette Davis and those stars everybody knows seem to be heavily re-released and re-promoted, and the films of, say, Don Ameche or Tyrone Power are basically unavailable, even though we get requests for them. It seems to me that a number of the major studios have released their top 100 classic films that everybody knows, and now do not know exactly what to do with the rest of their catalogue."
MGM/UA's Feltenstein agreed. Before he took over in 1987, he said, the former management sporadically released old video titles by picking up the "The MGM Story," a big colorful coffee-table book about the history of the studio, and randomly selecting movies.
"What the industry as a whole lacks is marketing savvy . . . and film knowledge," Feltenstein said. "The perfect example: CBS/Fox finally decided to put some Betty Grable films out, and they put out most of her worst movies and left out her best ones. Her most famous movies were 'Mother Wore Tights,' 'The Dolly Sisters,' 'Diamond Horseshoe,' 'Coney Island.' Those titles are still unavailable. Instead, they ended up releasing 'The Farmer Takes a Wife.' I had to sit back and laugh. It's like, don't you guys have a clue?"
To create demand for them, many film classics are pulled off the market and put on moratorium, often for years at a time. Then they are re-released and re-promoted.
Buena Vista Home Video helped pioneer moratoriums with its classic Disney animated films, which are re-released in theaters and on video every seven years or so. The practice has carried over into their other titles as well; a library of unavailable childhood standards, including "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Old Yeller," "The Parent Trap" and "The Love Bug," is coming off moratorium Jan. 24 with a big promotional bang.
"As the marketplace matured for video, so did we in terms of marketing our product," said Tania Steele, Buena Vista vice president of publicity. "To say, 'Here's 300 titles' is not the best way to handle a product. It's better for retailers and consumers if we put out small selections and promote them."
Not all companies agree that moratoriums make sense. Specialty companies without current big-name products, such as Turner and Republic, shy away from them. Turner's Weinstein explained: "When you release an older title, you sell 1,500 to 2,000 units initially, then another 200 or so every year. So video catalogues act like an annuity. The profits come over time."
A new thorn pricked video companies' side in 1990 when the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the videocassette profits from the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film "Rear Window" to a New York literary researcher who owned rights to the story. In essence, the ruling granted new copyright privileges to authors and their heirs whose work was incorporated into any movie made before the Copyright Act of 1976.
In the case of MGM/UA, three popular classics had to be pulled off the shelf because story rights could not be renegotiated:
* "The Haunting," the 1963 Robert Wise adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House."
* "The Americanization of Emily," director Arthur Hiller's 1964 World War II-era film starring Julie Andrews and James Garner, adapted by Paddy Chayefsky from the William Bradford Huie novel.
* "The Loved One," director Tony Richardson's 1965 satire based on the Evelyn Waugh novel about the American way of death.
"We can't put them out again unless the Supreme Court ruling is overturned," Feltenstein said. "This will be the only country in the world where you can't see these films."
There are still more reasons some movies have not hit video. "When I was with MGM, we couldn't release 'Bad Day at Black Rock' for a long time because the film elements were not complete," said Fisher of West Coast Video. "By chance we managed to run across another CinemaScope print in our archives, and it was in pristine condition. Remember, these old movies were shot on silver nitrate film and, unless they're kept airtight, they deteriorate."
All the major video companies engage, to some degree, in the task of remastering, restoring and occasionally recording new soundtracks for their classics. Donald Krim, who specializes in films that have fallen into the public domain 75 years after their release, suggested that one day, as all copyrights expire, the highest-quality video will be the only determining factor to video collectors.
"I analogize it to the people who put out special editions of Mark Twain or Shakespeare," said Krim, whose New York-based Kino on Video specializes in such silent-film classics as "Metropolis" and "Blood and Sand."
"Whoever puts out the best, most beautiful annotated versions of books--those are the ones people go to, and that's what the market for classic films will become," Krim said.