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How to Outsmart Disney’s Moratorium : Frustrated buyers can get around the firm’s policy of pulling its animated classics off the market. It takes a little digging--and some serious cash.

<i> Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based free-lancer who writes about home video. </i>

Pssst. C’mere. You wanna hook a “Little Mermaid”? One of Buena Vista Home Video’s most-requested titles has been officially off the market for four years. But here’s a little secret. Ariel and Sebastian can be part of your world.

That’s not all, either. You don’t need a fairy godmother to find “Cinderella.” Pull some strings and you can even get “Pinocchio.”

With “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Fox and the Hound” about to join Disney’s video moratorium list, these and other long-unavailable Disney animated classics can be had.

All it takes is a sympathetic retailer and, depending on the title, some serious money.

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Understand that we are not talking swap-meet bootlegs or illicit camcorded copies. These are original, clamshell-packaged Disneys, still sealed or previously viewed, that were stockpiled by retailers or collectors for release to an eager buyer’s market.

Though the official cutoff date for “Snow White” and “Hound” is April 30, Buena Vista has already stopped shipping copies to retailers and distributors. It is not likely that stores will soon run out of either title. This means that once stores run out of stock, it will be unavailable for purchase.

Like baseball cards, videos mass-produced in recent years are less scarce and less costly than those produced in lesser numbers in the 1980s, when people were not as inclined to buy videocassettes.

When contacted, the Sam Goody store at Universal CityWalk had copies of “Beauty and the Beast,” “101 Dalmatians,” “The Rescuers,” “The Rescuers Down Under” and “The Great Mouse Detective,” all placed on moratorium in 1993, for the suggested retail price of $24.99.

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(Consumer alert: According to some retailers, supplies are drying up on “Fantasia” and “Beauty and the Beast.”)

The lesson is to buy now or pay later. At the sell-through-only Video Tyme Studio Sales in the Buenaventura Mall in Ventura, “new” copies of “The Little Mermaid” are priced at $225. “Cinderella” has sold for $175. “Bambi” starts at $150. That’s a lot of doe.

The special stock came from other collectors and from inventory that owner Tony Anderson set aside for future store expansion. With people buying videos in record numbers, Anderson decided the time was right to put his Disneys up for sale.

“Why not set up a collector’s case, put these titles out there and see what happens?” he said. “Current market values are astronomical, and people aren’t aware of that. It’s fun to see the customer reaction.”

Which is? “Is this a joke?” Anderson replied.

It’s no joke. One cannot count on video stores having copies even to rent because of the high cost of replacement. Grandparents want them for grandchildren, new parents want them for children who were not born when the titles were released, and collectors want them for their libraries. Still others need to replace worn or damaged copies.

The best advice? Keep your eyes open. At last count, Suncoast Motion Picture Co. in the Lakewood Center Mall had more than 25 copies of “The Jungle Book” for $49.99 each.

Independent or so-called mom-and-pop stores might be willing to part with titles when they have extra copies. Other sources are distributors and used-tape brokers that buy out the inventories of video stores that are going out of business.

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Clearwater, Fla.-based Distribution Video & Audio ((800) 683- 4147) recently had used copies of “The Little Mermaid,” “Lady and the Tramp” and “Cinderella” in stock for about $100 each. They go fast.

“Disney titles aren’t inventoried for more than three days,” said sales manager Sue Leech. “Of three phone callers, two will have a heart attack over the price, and the third will give you his credit-card number.”

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Disney’s custom of releasing its animated classics for a limited time may be frustrating to those who can’t understand why they can’t readily buy “Sleeping Beauty.”

“We have a responsibility to these films, the filmmakers and Walt Disney,” said Tania Moloney, vice president of publicity and marketing for Buena Vista Home Video. “We take great care in how they’re presented at the retail level. We don’t want to see tons of copies poorly displayed all over the shelves. These films are legendary.

“We also don’t want to diminish their chances for theatrical re-release, since they were originally created for the theater. It is wonderful to have them on video, but it is very special for a family to experience them on the big screen.”

This year, Moloney said, Buena Vista plans to release at least one of its animated classics. Although a promotional insert in a recent Disney “Sing-Along” video promised a first-time release this year of “The Aristocats,” Disney has not followed through with an official announcement. So it’s not even known if the 1995 release will be “Aristocats,” another video premiere or a title previously placed on moratorium.

Tale of the Tapes

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Here is the current status of Disney’s animated features on video:

Available for purchase: “Dumbo,” “The Three Caballeros,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Sword in the Stone” and “Robin Hood.”

About to go on moratorium: “Snow White” and “The Fox and the Hound.”

Officially on moratorium: “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Bambi,” “Cinderella,” “Peter Pan,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “101 Dalmatians,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Rescuers,” “The Great Mouse Detective,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Rescuers Down Under,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.”

Never released on video: “Saludos Amigos,” “Melody Time,” “The Aristocats,” “The Black Cauldron” and “Oliver and Company.”

And don’t forget: “The Lion King” roars onto video on March 3. For a limited time, of course.


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