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‘Jafar’: New Journeys to Profitland? : Videos: Industry experts predict Disney’s sequel to ‘Aladdin’ will wind up among the all-time top sellers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walt Disney has found a true diamond in the rough.

“The Return of Jafar,” the home-video sequel to “Aladdin,” began selling in supermarkets and retail stores across the country Wednesday, and copies are flying off shelves faster than a magic carpet ride. “Jafar” moved 1.5 million cassettes in the first two days, out-pacing the early video sales of two recent Disney classic releases, “The Fox and the Hound” and “Pinocchio.”

Industry experts predict that “Jafar,” with a suggested retail price of $22.99, will eventually sell more than 10 million units to rank among the 10 top-selling videos of all time. This is for a musical that was made for a song in Disney’s TV animation division, did not have the benefit of being seen in movie theaters first and has been received coolly by critics (see review, on this page).

The ramifications for the home-video business could be enormous. Until now, the bulk of made-for-video products have been tawdry B-movies, bun-burning fitness tapes and cutesy children’s fare--and a top title sells 1 million units. Disney gambled when it shipped 8 million “Jafar” cassettes to retailers.

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“This is just a colossal success,” Ann Daly, president of Buena Vista Home Video, a Disney subsidiary, said Thursday. “After the first two days, to have sold through this many copies to consumers, to put it on a par with some of the Disney animated classics, suggests that (the studio’s) first direct-to-video movie is a quality product and there’s a market for it.”

Disney has already created a separate banner to serve this market, Walt Disney Home Video Presents, and in August will release “Muppet Classic Theater,” an original, feature-length project from Jim Henson Productions. Sources say the company has two more animated home-video projects in story form--another “Aladdin” installment and a sequel to Disney’s big summer movie, “The Lion King.”

Disney is not alone. Later this year, MCA Home Video will bypass movie theaters with the direct-to-video movies “Darkman II,” and after that “Darkman III,” both sequels to the 1990 original starring Liam Neeson. And the Spelling Entertainment Group announced this week that its four-hour, $12-million miniseries “Texas,” based on James Michener’s best-selling novel and now filming in Del Rio, Tex., will premiere this fall on home video before airing on ABC next year.

At Disney, Daly said it was the success of the “Aladdin” franchise that “gave us the enthusiasm to launch this (direct-to-video) business.”

“Aladdin,” the most successful animated film in movie history, has grossed $486 million worldwide in theaters. Disney’s merchandising for “Aladdin” was greater than any previous Disney film, with a record 24 million videocassettes sold, a triple-platinum soundtrack album, 20 million story and activity books in print and a Sega Genesis video game with sales pushing 1 million copies.

Overall, “Aladdin” reportedly has reaped $1 billion in revenue for Disney since its release in spring last year.

A feature-film sequel to “Aladdin” would have taken years to make, and Disney’s last animated sequel, “The Rescuers Down Under,” was not a big success. “Bringing ‘Aladdin’ back on home video allows us to bring it to the market much faster, while the characters are still hot and kids are still interested,” Daly said. “It’s the peak of the franchise, really.”

For the fall, Disney has made 65 episodes of an animated children’s TV series based on “Aladdin” for syndication and another 13 episodes for CBS. In a sense, the “Jafar” video acts as a segue from the feature film to the cartoon series by swinging over the parrot Iago--Jafar’s evil sidekick, voiced by Gilbert Gottfried--to the good side.

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“In my experience, the word synergy is more than just a concept at the Walt Disney Co. It’s actually an operating philosophy,” Daly said. “When we as a company develop a creative property, there’s a process in place that allows for participation by a variety of areas to help the idea along, or extend it in one way or another. ‘The Return of Jafar’ movie is a perfect example of that.”

But Disney has also come under criticism for continuing to rub the “Aladdin” lamp so enthusiastically--a tag line on the “Jafar” preview cassette sent to retailers reads: “The Story Continues . . . and So Do the Profits!”

“Little of that money (brought in by the “Aladdin” franchise) seems to have been invested in ‘Jafar,’ ” complained a review of the video for Entertainment Weekly. And the Hollywood Reporter suggested that “Jafar” was actually developed as a TV movie--there are several fade-to-blacks, a TV technique to lead into commercials--and that home video was an afterthought.

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Disney does plan to broadcast “Jafar” in syndication later this year, but the project was always designed for home-video release, Daly responded. She also cautioned against comparing “Jafar” to “Aladdin” because they were made for different mediums.

“It’s real easy for people to pop in the ‘Aladdin’ tape and then this tape, and tear it down,” concurred Tad Stones, co-producer and co-director of “Jafar.” He said he now regrets the fade-to-blacks, which were creative choices for dramatic effect. “But we’re not trying to say this is ‘Aladdin’ by any means. It’s a fantastic piece of entertainment for direct-to-video.”

In terms of production, “Jafar” falls somewhere between a TV program and a feature film. Sources put the budget of the 66-minute “Jafar” near $5 million--more than the $500,000 Disney spends on an animated half-hour of television, but considerably less than the reported $30 million spent on “Aladdin.”

But for all the creative losses required by the reduced budget, producers say there are also creative gains when working on a direct-to-video project. A product can get to the marketplace quickly and inexpensively, and there are no rules or standards dictating what the project should be.

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“When you’re producing for television, you have to be so aware of the amount of time you have so you can fit within commercial breaks,” said Brian Henson, president of Jim Henson Productions. “Muppet Classic Theater” is a compilation of folk and fairy tales, shot on video rather than film to save money. “With features, you’re locked into the accepted narrative structure. Video is an emerging medium that’s getting stronger and stronger, but still doesn’t have any audience expectations. They’re open to anything coming on video.”

The limits of the direct-to-video market will be tested this fall with the release of “Texas,” a sweeping saga starring Maria Conchita Alonso, Patrick Duffy, Chelsea Field, Stacy Keach, David Keith, Rick Schroeder, Grant Show and Randy Travis, among others. Rather than sell the miniseries to consumers inexpensively, the producers will charge retailers a much higher price for them to rent it to consumers.

“We have a lot of faith this is going to work,” said Glenn Ross, senior vice president of Republic Pictures, a division of Spelling. He plans to support “Texas” with the kind of home-video marketing plan reserved for major studio movies. “If the video retailers get behind it, this will make them a unique outlet for new product. They stop being an aftermarket, and they start becoming a primary market.”


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