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Ink & Paint is a podcast journey through the Disney animated classics! Each week, host Daniel Lammin and a special guest will look at each film in the official Disney animated canon, and talk about their artistic, historical and social context. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss an episode! Have comments or questions for Ink & Paint? Record a message for Daniel right from your phone, and we'll try to use it in our next episode!

In-Betweener #12: Walt Disney Home Video
Daniel looks at the early history of the Disney animated classics on home video, the careful decisions that led to the films finally being available on VHS, the unexpected success of 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'Fantasia' on the format and the birth of the Disney Vault.

Daniel Lammin

Producer/Editor ∷ Alex Amster
Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis

Show Notes
Since the late 1980s, an integral component of the legacy of the Disney animated features has been their presence on home video. While theatrical re-releases consistent into the 90s, these releases on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD have often been the first contact for millions of children with the Disney classics, to the extent that a VHS in a clamshell case has become an emotional family heirloom.

In many ways, the persistence of these classics is a result of the home video revolution, not only making the films more accessible but a constant presence in family homes. They could be rewatched over and over again, the tape worn down until it could barely function and the cover left in tatters.

The Walt Disney Company is infamous for their unusual home video practices, especially their moratorium process of limiting the availability of a title, and their handling of their legacy on the format has ranged from groundbreaking to Machiavellian. In this In-Betweener, we’re going to take a look at the origins of Walt Disney Home Video, a story of careful and strategic choices that helped build the company into the great entertainment juggernaut at the end of the twentieth century.

The concept of audiences being able to watch a film in the comfort of their own home is almost as old as cinema itself. The earliest discussions of home viewing date back to 1906, and in 1912 Thomas Edison and Pathé both began developing home projector systems. Due to the expense associated with manufacturing film prints, the films were more often rented from the projector manufacturers, but Edison was led by his understanding of the phonograph and had misjudged consumer demand. The practice didn’t last out the decade, with both companies phasing out their home projector manufacturing by the start of the First World War.

For most of the twentieth century, the only opportunity to see a feature film would be in a movie theatre, and often not past its first theatrical run. There were revival cinemas and re-release schedules, but these were only for particularly popular films. The arrival of television did give these films a second life, but before the advent of home recording technology, it was only possible to watch these films as they were broadcast.

Super 8 highlight reels for ‘Alien’ and ‘Jaws’

In 1965, Kodak began to manufacture 8mm film for home movie recording. This became a popular practice, but in order to enjoy the films, consumers would also need an 8mm projector. This offered a unique opportunity for distributing professionally made content for domestic entertainment, including material from feature films. Consumers could rent or buy 8mm or 16mm reels featuring cartoons, shorts or highlight reels from feature films. The format couldn’t support an entire feature, but audiences could enjoy scenes from the film at home, sometimes accompanied by optical soundtracks. It was still an expensive practice, so for the most part, only hardened film buffs or wealthy consumers could be bothered with these Super 8 reels.

In the 1970s, home video took a massive leap with the arrival of analogue videocassettes. This technology allowed consumers to record home movies and television content to magnetic tape for their personal use, and also offered studios a way of introducing their films into homes. Unlike the limited run time of Super 8, a full feature could be accommodated on one or more videocassettes without heavily compromising the viewing experience. The very first VHS release of a feature film came from South Korea, with the 1976 release of the 1972 film ‘The Young Teacher’. Amongst the first feature films released on VHS in the United States were classics such as ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Patton’ and ‘M*A*S*H’.

The first VCR units for the VHS format were made commercially available in Japan in 1976, but this came a year after the release of another magnetic tape format called Betamax, backed by Sony and launched in 1975. While the two formats would coexist until the discontinuation of Betamax in 2015, there was a long-running format war between the two. A number of studios, including Disney, watched with interest to see which of the two formats consumers would be drawn to, and sided with VHS when it became the clear winner.

For many distributors, the idea that consumers would want to build their own personal collections of VHS titles wasn’t taken into consideration. It was assumed they would be more inclined to rent titles, so prices for an individual VHS were set as high as $79.95, a price only appealing to rental stores. By the 1980s, this thinking had started to shift, and as VCR units became more affordable, the home video market began to shift from rental to ownership.

This boom in the home video market happened to coincide with the rise of the Hollywood blockbusters. Films like ‘Star Wars’, ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ became VHS staples, and with the rush to replicate the success of ‘Star Wars’ in the 80s, imitators that failed at the box office could find new life on home video.

Many of the studios were quick to take part in the growing popularity of home video, but one studio that was conspicuously absent from the market was Disney. Home video was a whole new world for Hollywood, and while others were more willing to take the plunge, Disney would approach with far more caution and suspicion.

By the middle of the Second World War, Walt Disney Productions were in serious trouble. Almost every feature film they had released in the 1940s had been a commercial failure, and the studio had been sequestered by the United States Army during the war as a military base, producing training and propaganda films for essentially no profit whatsoever. The contracts from the Army were just covering their budget, but they knew that if they were going to emerge from the war with the studio intact, they needed to make money as soon as possible.

‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ poster from the 1944 theatrical re-release © Disney

They decided to turn to their biggest success, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. The film had earned a stunning $4.2 million on its initial release in the US alone in 1937 and 1938, but over the last seven years, audiences hadn’t many opportunities to see the film again. ‘Snow White’ returned to cinemas in the US on February 22, 1944, and was once again an enormous commercial and critical success, enough to momentarily give Walt Disney Productions the financial respite they needed.

What Walt and his brother Roy realised with the first re-release of ‘Snow White’ was that their films may have as much value in return engagements as they did in their first theatrical runs. The idea of re-releasing classic films wasn’t new; Universal had already started a healthy business bringing their classic horror films such as ‘Dracula’ (1931) and ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) back to theatres on a regular basis, but Walt Disney Productions devised a more structured plan. They would return their films to cinemas every seven-to-ten years, accompanied by a major marketing campaign announcing the return of the beloved films. Not only would this provide a steady revenue stream, but help to build the prestige of these films as classics.

This practice would continue on a regular basis right into the 1990s, with ‘Snow White’ alone receiving eight theatrical re-releases, and would also begin to establish a hierarchy within the animated features. During Walt’s lifetime, a number of films he saw as inferior, such as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’, never returned to cinemas, and it was only after his death that they began to reappear and build a strong following. The package films of the 1940s were essentially dismantled for parts, not seen in their original form until well into the home video era. It’s important to remember that, until the late 1980s, a Disney animated feature could take up to four years to make, and no two productions would ever be in active production at the same time. This re-release schedule provided a dependable, steady income for the studio, especially with prestige titles like ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella’ who always brought an audience.

This practice of bringing a film back to cinemas for a limited time and then returning it to moratorium was the beginning of what would become known as the Disney Vault, a marketing tool the studio would develop as they entered the home video market. We now understand the financial advantages of such an approach, but to begin with, the idea of restricting access to these films was as much about prestige as it was protecting a steady income stream. Both of these considerations would come into play when the home video revolution began, and why Disney were reluctant to join in.

During the popularity of Super 8, Disney did release some of their cartoon shorts and a selection of highlight reels to the format, but this material was minor enough not to make an impact on the animated features. Their first formal step into the home video market came in 1978, when Disney partnered with the Music Corporation of America (MCA) on their format DiscoVision. A precursor for what was to become LaserDisc, the format placed filmed content onto large silver optical discs, similar to Compact Disc technology for music.

Disney was dubious about the videocassette, especially the autonomy it gave consumers to record content onto the cassette from television. They had even joined Universal Pictures in a lawsuit against Sony over Betamax in 1976, claiming the format was copyright infringement. DiscoVision seemed a much safer option for their products, and their support for the format might sway consumers away from VHS and Betamax.

Six titles were released on DiscoVision, but only one, the 1960 film ‘Kidnapped’, was of feature length. The others were collections of shorts centred around different characters, including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Chip ‘n Dale. The format didn’t prove popular or intuitive, so the deal with MCA expired in December 1981.

It was at this point that Disney decided to establish their own home video division within the Walt Disney Telecommunications and Non-Theatrical Company. They struck a deal with Photomat, a drive-through photo development chain, for thirteen rental titles to be available from their kiosks for between $7.95 to $13.95 a rental. Of those initial thirteen titles (later expanded to fourteen), none were Disney animated features. They consisted almost entirely of live-action films, including high-profile titles such as ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ and ‘Pete’s Dragon’, along with the cartoon compilations originally released on DiscoVision. All of these titles were available by the end of 1980 under the banner of Walt Disney Home Video.

Original 1980 VHS release of ‘Pete’s Dragon’

While most studios were reluctant to support the rental market, Disney made it their priority, even issuing different colour cases for rental and commercial copies to ensure rental stores weren’t violating their dealer agreements.

Disney continued to release VHS titles through the early 80s, but it was noted by industry and consumers that the animated films were conspicuously absent. While they were happy to release the many live-action family films from their catalogue (and films like ‘Mary Poppins’ were certainly no slouch), the animated films were their most prestigious titles, and there were concerns that release on the video market would impact their theatrical re-release prospects. These films had gained enormous prestige with their limited accessibility, and a VHS was a permanent object that could be revisited whenever the consumer wanted rather than the studio. As the market for home video began to grow, it soon became clear that Disney were going to need to release these films on VHS, Betamax and the other home video formats sooner or later.

On June 28, 1981, Walt Disney Home Video finally released ‘Dumbo’ on VHS, the first of the animated films on home video. It was a smart tactical move on Disney’s part - the film was beloved by audiences, but had also become a television staple in a cut-down version for ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’. Releasing the film on home video wouldn’t impact its theatrical re-release potential. This was also true of the titles that followed it - ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh’, released at the same time, and ‘Alice in Wonderland’, released in October. The following year, ‘Fun & Fancy Free’ was also released, with the marketing emphasising the ‘Mickey and the Beanstalk’ segment. While these titles might have been the safe option, Disney were still careful, only allowing them for release as rentals. Both ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ would be available for sale the following year, but for the next few years, these were the only titles available, and hardly the prestige titles the public were hoping for.

Ron Miller © Disney

When Ron Miller assumed the role of President and CEO of Walt Disney Productions in 1984, he set a series of initiatives into motion that would shape Disney for the decades to come. Chief among them would be the establishment of Touchstone Films and the Disney Channel, but Miller was also determined to take full advantage of the home video market. There had been internal discussions in 1983 over what titles, if any, they should release, not just on home video but on the Disney Channel.

It was decided that the perfect candidate would be ‘Robin Hood’. It was a well-loved title but not as beloved as many of the other films. It was released on December 3, 1984, with the VHS cassettes priced at $79.95 and the LaserDisc version at $34.95. This price difference is startling, but made sense to Disney at the time. They were still keen to push titles through the rental market, and while LaserDisc was the more expensive technology for the consumer, there were already concerns around how easy it would be for customers to replicate a VHS. Disney would still, to a certain degree, have control over the title.

Through these discussions, it was also determined what titles would not be made available on home video or the Disney Channel. In consultation with the Disney family, a list of films was drawn up, films that would not, under any circumstances, be made available to the public in any form other than theatrical re-release. These titles, which became known as “The Untouchables”, were ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Fantasia’, ‘Bambi’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Lady and the Tramp’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’, ‘The Sword in the Stone’, ‘The Jungle Book’, ‘The Aristocats’, ‘The Rescuers’ and ‘The Fox and the Hound’. None of these films had ever been shown on television and had all made money on their theatrical re-releases. For the foreseeable future, they would remain under complete control of Walt Disney Productions.

By the time Miller resigned from Walt Disney Productions in 1985, only ‘Robin Hood’ had been released. As was the case with many of Miller’s initiatives, the new administration at Disney under Michael Eisner and Frank Wells would benefit from the initial work he had spearheaded with the home video market. Finally bringing Disney to the forefront of the market though would require even more careful negotiation.

On December 21, 1984, ‘Pinocchio’ returned to U.S. theatres, its first re-release since 1978. With each subsequent return to cinemas, the film had continued to grow in acclaim and box office success, and in its 1984-1985 run, the film made $26.9 million in the US and Canada, a comparable amount to ‘The Black Cauldron’ released the same year. Unlike ‘Cauldron’ though, this was profit made on a 45 year old film, a fact that did not go unnoticed to Michael Eisner.

Among the team who moved with Eisner from Paramount to Disney was Bill Mechanic, who had worked as a senior creative executive for Paramount Pictures. He was handed to Jeffrey Kaztenberg, who placed him in charge of the home video division. As well as the Walt Disney Home Video titles, there was also Buena Vista Home Video, established in 1984 to distribute content separate from Disney, including VHS releases of ‘The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle’ and ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’. This appointment wasn’t exactly what Mechanic had wanted. By 1984, the home video market still hadn’t taken off, and videocassettes were still too expensive to be popular with consumers.

With the success of ‘Pinocchio’, Eisner and Wells suggested that the film should be a candidate for release on home video. Both Roy Disney and Katzenberg objected to the idea. Releasing ‘Robin Hood’ had posed little risk to the prestige of Disney animation, but while ‘Pinocchio’ wasn’t yet regarded as one of the crown jewels of the art form, there was a certain amount of respect for the film within the company.

Bill Mechanic, by contrast, became a strong advocate for the idea. He thought it possible that, by shifting public perception away from rentals, home video releases of Disney animated classics could become collectors items, maybe even family heirlooms. Reframing the releases as such might help justify their cost to consumers. Eisner thought this was a silly idea.

A compromise was finally reached - ‘Pinocchio’ would be released on VHS, Betamax and LaserDisc, but the VHS would be priced at $79.95, a cost only appealing to rental stores. They would also introduce another caveat, one that would maintain their control of the title and would become integral to Disney’s home video strategy. ‘Pinocchio’ would only be available for a limited time, after which all copies would be removed from shelves, essentially replicating the moratorium practice used for its theatrical release.

Advertisement for the 1985 VHS release of ‘Pinocchio’ © Disney

‘Pinocchio’ made its home video debut on July 16, 1985, the first title officially released under the banner of Walt Disney Classics, though ‘Robin Hood’ would later be retroactively added to the collection. A publicity campaign costing $1 million was launched to support the release, including one of the first television advertising campaigns for a single VHS title. Despite the high cost, sales were surprisingly consistent, with around 150,000 units sold, and audiences certainly seemed enthusiastic about finally having access to the film for home viewing.

Mechanic still had faith in his idea of the film as a collectible, and in August 1985, began exploring options to make the film even more appealing to consumers. He decided to drop the price down to $29.95, along with a second advertising campaign to promote the release. An extra $7 million was spent in advertising, an amount that horrified Katzenberg. He reprimanded Mechanic for spending so much on a pre-sold property, but Mechanic pushed back. The only way they were going to change the consumer relationship with home video was to shift their perception of it, and this was their opportunity to do so.

On November 5, ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘Dumbo’ became available for $29.95. Almost immediately, sales skyrocketed. Very soon, ‘Pinocchio’ sold out its 1.7 million unit run, and became the biggest selling VHS title of the year. Mechanic’s hunch had proven correct - more than renting the films, consumers were keen to have the Disney animated films as a permanent fixture in their homes. On April 30, 1987, both ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Robin Hood’ went into moratorium, while ‘Dumbo’ remained on sale.

The next title to enter the Walt Disney Classics line was ‘The Sword in the Stone’. While it had initially been counted among the “untouchable” titles, its status changed after it aired on television in 1985. The film arrived on VHS on March 25, 1986, though once again at the $79.95 price. Two months later in May, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was made available once again as a commercial title, and has been publicly available on home video ever since.

Bill Mechanic was now keen to follow-up the success of ‘Pinocchio’ with another major classic, and the obvious candidate was ‘Cinderella’. It was due for a theatrical run in the next two years, and it was even more beloved than ‘Pinocchio’. It was for this reason that Katzenberg and Roy Disney resisted the idea. In the hierarchy of Disney classics, ‘Cinderella’ was almost comparable to ‘Snow White’, and had the added emotional weight of being the film that saved the studio at the start of the 1950s. Frustrated, Mechanic went to Eisner and Wells to argue his case.

A meeting was called to discuss the issue, with Eisner, Wells, Katzenberg and other executives present. Mechanic made his case for the title, examining the emotional issues and the financial issues. For both he and Eisner, the emotional issues were a moot point, factors that were too unknowable to be taken into consideration, but Mechanic argued that, while the film could make around $25 million per theatrical run, a cumulative box office of $125 million over twenty-eight years, a single VHS release at $29.98 could make over $100 million in a single year.

Eisner and Wells were convinced, but Roy wouldn’t budge on ‘Cinderella’. Once again, a compromise was reached. Instead of ‘Cinderella’, they could release ‘Sleeping Beauty’, a far less revered film that had never performed well at the box office, and had seen far fewer re-releases. It would have a theatrical release in March 1986, and be followed with a VHS release in October.

Advertisement for the 1986 VHS release of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ © Disney

Bill Mechanic decided to make the film the centrepiece of a new $6 million advertising campaign, “Bring Disney Home For Good”. At this stage, all five of the previous titles were still in print, so ‘Sleeping Beauty’ could be promoted as the sixth title in the series. This began Disney’s tactic of encouraging consumers to build their own Disney VHS library, sweetened by the $29.95 price tag for all six titles.

This campaign would also have an enormous impact on the public perception of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ itself. Disney had never thought of it as one of their prestige titles, but the VHS campaign promoted the film as one of their crowning achievements, the “classic you’ve been waiting for.” During its theatrical run in 1986, the film had only made $15 million at the domestic box office. On VHS, it would sell 3 million copies and become the biggest selling VHS title of 1986, returning to moratorium in March 1988. With the enormous success of the release, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ had transformed from an empty bauble to one of the great works of the Disney canon.

After the success of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in 1986 and even greater success with the VHS release of ‘Lady and the Tramp’ in October 1987, where it became the biggest selling VHS of all time, Katzenberg and Roy finally agreed to release ‘Cinderella’ on home video. The success of the films on the format was undeniable, and with the theatrical run set for November 1987, there was nothing to suggest the release wouldn’t be even more successful than the previous titles.

Their prediction was correct. ‘Cinderella’ exceeded the sales of ‘Lady and the Tramp’, selling 7.2 million copies and generating over $100 million in revenue. By this point, Walt Disney Home Video was becoming a staple of family collections and Christmas presents, and a whole new generation were discovering these films, not just in theatres, but once again at home. ‘Cinderella’ was also the first title announced beforehand as a limited release. During its advertising campaign, Disney announced that the film would only be available until April 1989, the shortest release window so far. Consumers would only have six months to purchase the film before it would disappear from shelves, for who knew how long. By this point, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Lady and the Tramp’ had already been placed in moratorium.

While Roy and Katzenberg were willing to relax their objections with ‘Cinderella’, there were two titles on which they stood firm - they would not allow a home video release of either ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ or ‘Fantasia’. If ‘Cinderella’ was a prestige title, these two films were the apex, the two projects closest to Walt’s heart. No amount of revenue was worth tarnishing their reputation.

A month after the VHS release of ‘Cinderella’, Disney theatrically released their latest animated film, Oliver & Company, the first since the Walt Disney Classics line had become a major force in their home entertainment strategy. While Disney continued to release classic animated films on VHS with ‘Bambi’ in 1989, they showed no signs of releasing ‘Oliver’ or the previous film, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’.

Releasing a classic was one thing, but they had no strategy for their more recent films. Much of the planning and promotion around the Walt Disney Classics titles had been dictated by the studio’s seven-to-ten year re-release schedule, with all of these titles now generating mostly profit. It was unclear how a VHS title of a more recent film would affect its future re-release prospects, or even when such a title should appear on home video.

As would be the case across the entirety of the Walt Disney Company, the blockbuster release of ‘The Little Mermaid’ would dramatically shift the practices of Walt Disney Home Video. The film was a critical and commercial success on a scale Walt Disney Animation Studios had practically never seen, and it became clear that a home video release was not just inevitable, but a financial necessity.

1990 VHS release of ‘The Little Mermaid’ © Disney

On May 18 1990, six months after its theatrical premiere, ‘The Little Mermaid’ was released on home video. It was a shocking, unprecedented decision - no film of this scale had ever been released on VHS while the film itself was still in theatres. The release was even promoted in the film’s print cinema advertising. It was also advertised as part of the Walt Disney Classics line, a bold move since all the previous films were decades old and acknowledged classics, while ‘The Little Mermaid’ though highly acclaimed, was hardly old enough to be considered as such. This began Disney’s practice of labelling all their films in this way, first as classics and later in the 90s as “Masterpieces”, terms they would use so freely that they began to hold little meaning. This was all part of shifting the narrative around the Disney animated films. If they were proclaiming a film as recent as ‘The Little Mermaid’ as a classic comparable to ‘Cinderella’, this guaranteed its status as a prestige film from the beginning and helped plant the new Disney animated features within the wider legacy of Disney animation.

In its first month alone, ‘The Little Mermaid’ sold 7 million copies. By the time it went into moratorium, it had sold 10 million copies and made over $18o million, making it the best-selling VHS title of the year. What is even more extraordinary about those numbers, as well as the fact the film was still in theatres, was that ‘The Little Mermaid’, like ‘Cinderella’, was only made available for six months. Once again, Disney were training their consumers to buy these titles as fast as possible and as many as possible before they would disappear. As a result, second-hand copies of titles like ‘The Little Mermaid’ would sell for hundreds of dollars, and collectors who missed out were forced to track down copies at enormously inflated prices.

As Walt Disney Animation Studios moved from strength to strength, from the overwhelming critical acclaim of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to the stellar box-office success of ‘Aladdin’, this process of offering limited home video releases of their recent films became standard practice, with each new “Walt Disney Classic” selling in higher and higher numbers. In 1995, the staggering box-office success of ‘The Lion King’ was followed by a record-breaking VHS release. To date, ‘The Lion King’ is the biggest-selling VHS title of all time, having sold 32 million copies and generating over $500 million in revenue.

In the meantime, Walt Disney Classics enjoyed further success with the release of both ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘The Jungle Book’, paired with theatrical runs and selling well to consumers. The price for the titles began to drop, with ‘The Jungle Book’ selling at $24.99, and both titles returning to moratorium within a year.

Despite this, Roy still held firm on protecting ‘Snow White’ and ‘Fantasia’. The latter in particular was an important part of his family legacy, and over the past fifty years, its reputation had slowly begun to build. While he wasn’t interested in a home video release, he was keen to pick up where Walt had left off. When Eisner had joined the company in 1985, Roy expressed his desire to create a sequel to ‘Fantasia’, to realise Walt’s dream of the film being a perpetual work-in-progress, with new sequences added periodically.

Eisner wasn’t adverse to the idea, even discussing it with legendary composer Leonard Bernstein, but Jeffrey Katzenberg was staunchly against it. ‘Fantasia’ may have had artistic or sentimental value within the company, but it had been one of the studio’s biggest financial failures, and if audiences hadn’t been taken by the marriage of classical music and mostly abstract animation in 1940, they certainly wouldn’t be in the 1990s. And yet, ‘Fantasia’ was one of the most requested VHS titles. It would need to be released at some point, and with public interest in the films on VHS growing each year, this seemed as good a time as any.

Eisner came up with a compromise. ‘Fantasia’ would soon be celebrating its 50th anniversary, with the film set to return to theatres in October 1990 for a limited engagement following a massive restoration effort to return the film as close to its original length as possible. Eisner proposed that this theatrical release be followed by a home video release, and all profit from that release would finance Roy’s plans for a ‘Fantasia’ sequel. After consulting with the Disney family, Roy agreed.

Poster for the 1991 VHS release of ‘Fantasia’ © Disney

For the home video release of ‘Fantasia’, the marketing department went into overdrive. The release was billed as a major event, with lavish VHS and LaserDisc gift sets, including lithographs, the newly restored soundtrack and a making-of documentary. The marketing was sparse and classical, dominated by the iconic imagery of Mickey in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. The text on the poster and the units themselves proclaimed it “Walt Disney’s Masterpiece”. There wasn’t an element of the release that wasn’t scrutinised and perfected - in many ways, the finest home video campaign in Disney’s history.

The release was set for November 1, 1991 on VHS, LaserDisc and Betamax, and would be the first title released simultaneously around the world. Where previous titles had been on shelves for six-to-twelve months, ‘Fantasia’ would only be available to purchase in the US for fifty days. For international markets, this window was extended to 100 days. Once this window was closed, ‘Fantasia’ would return to moratorium, but Disney were not being coy about its future. It was billed as “The Final Release of the Original Masterpiece,” available for “the first and last time in its original form.” The message was clear - this was the one chance consumers had to own ‘Fantasia’ for the foreseeable future, after which it would be locked away, possibly (or so they implied) for good.

By the end of its fifty day window in the US, ‘Fantasia’ sold 14.2 million copies. Before it had even been released, there were over 9 million advanced orders for VHS copies. “The interest on ‘Fantasia’ is higher than any other title we’ve ever carried, including ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’,” said home video retailer Robert Griesbaum to the ‘Chicago Tribune’ in October 1991. “But there’s an extra factor at work here. ‘Fantasia’ carries the Disney name, which means it’s highly collectible. There will be hundreds of people out there buying the tape or disc who may never play it, but will put it on the closet shelf and hope that years from now it will be worth a lot of money.”

The enormous success of ‘Fantasia’ on home video did indeed allow Roy Disney to begin development on a sequel, but it would also change the fortunes of the original film. ‘Fantasia’ had now moved from a curiosity to a titan in cinema history, a film of such importance that it almost existed outside of the traditional Disney classics.

After the film returned to moratorium, Michael Eisner called Lillian Disney, Walt’s widow. He had some exciting news to share with her. ‘Fantasia’ had been a colossal financial failure for Walt Disney Productions in 1940, enough that the future of the studio had been placed in jeopardy. Eisner was pleased to tell Lilian that, half a century later with the home video release, ‘Fantasia’ had finally turned a profit.

Throughout the early 90s, more of the great Disney animated films made the move to home video, often paired with a theatrical re-release. Films like ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ and ‘The Fox and the Hound’ became available, leaving very few of the “untouchable” films untouched, while ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Aladdin’ were inducted into the Walt Disney Classics line. With ‘The Fox and the Hound’ in March 1994, that line of titles officially came to an end.

There was one title though that continued to remain locked away - ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Nearly a decade after Roy and Katzenberg had refused to allow the film to be released on home video, it was finally decided that the time had come to make it available to the public. In 1993, the film became the first to receive a major digital restoration, with each frame scanned at 4K resolution and digitally restored. This new restoration was released in theatres in July 1993, and a home video release was set for the following year.

Advertisement for the 1994 VHS release of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ © Disney

As well as completing unfinished business for Walt Disney Home Video, the release of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ presented them with a tantalising opportunity. The film was used as the launch for a new line, the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection. Many of their prestige titles had now been in moratorium for nearly a decade, and the traditional schedule meant that they were due to be released once again. By the mid-90s, Disney’s reluctance with home video had changed dramatically. VHS had become a massive industry, both for everyday consumers and collectors, and the company started to see greater financial prospects for these titles on the home video market than in theatrical release.

They had also begun to note a flaw in magnetic tape technology. Unlike LaserDisc and Compact Discs, VHS, Betamax and cassette tapes degraded over time and especially with excessive use. Children often talked of watching these VHS copies hundreds of times. Copies of ‘Pinocchio’ bought in the mid-80s were now so badly worn that they had become unwatchable, and consumers were desperate to replace their old tapes. In many cases, they turned to the second-hand market. Disney much preferred the idea of that money going into their pocket.

‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ hit shelves on VHS and Laserdisc on October 28, 1994, and in its six months of release, sold 24 million copies and earned nearly $500 million. On the same day, Disney also released nine other titles to the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection. Many of them, like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Dumbo’, titles that had never been out of print, while others like ‘The Sword in the Stone’ and ‘The Three Caballeros’, were returning or debuting on the format. They also included many of their biggest live-action films, including ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’, ‘So Dear To My Heart’ and ‘Pete’s Dragon’.

The Masterpiece line would see the debut of a number of films to home video, including ‘Oliver & Company’ and ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad’, along with returning titles such as ‘Bambi’ and ‘The Jungle Book’, and the induction of all new films such as ‘The Lion King’, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘Mulan’. As had been the case with the Classics line, the term “Masterpiece” was used freely, assigned to every title, whether it were a new film or one arguably undeserving of the accolade such as ‘Melody Time’ or ‘The Black Cauldron’. The line would reach its peak when, in 1998, they finally re-released ‘The Little Mermaid’ to record-breaking sales.

While many titles would remain on sale permanently, a selection of films would once again be returned to moratorium after a period of time, establishing a prestige series of titles. By this time, the term “the Disney Vault” had become vernacular, a shorthand used by the studio in advertising campaigns to urge customers to buy these titles as quickly as possible. Fourteen films were included in the Vault, with thirteen released at regular intervals during the DVD era, and ‘Fantasia’ reserved for one-off releases on each new format.

By the end of the 90s, VHS had dominated the home video market for over a decade. Betamax had all but disappeared, and LaserDisc was reserved for enthusiasts. In 1997, a new optical disc technology entered the market. Dubbed “Digital Versatile Discs” or DVD, it offered a better video and audio quality and greater consumer interaction, but like any new technology, was too expensive for the everyday household. By the end of the 90s, the format had begun to pick up steam and, soon into the 2000s, began to pummel VHS in sales. The world of home entertainment was about to shift from magnetic to digital.

Just as Bill Mechanic had predicted, VHS copies of Disney animated films had become beloved household items. Families and collectors proudly displayed their titles in their homes, each release a carefully crafted, aesthetically pleasing object, with striking cover art and matching designs. They also had prestige as rare objects, children using ownership of a title as cultural cache in the playground or at school. Home video had become one of the biggest revenue streams for Disney, helping to establish them as the great cultural and entertainment juggernaut at the end of the twentieth century. Of the top ten best selling VHS titles of all time, six of them are Disney animated features.

As the new century emerged and the popularity of DVD began to grow, it became clear that, much like vinyl and cassette in the wake of compact discs, the days for VHS may be coming to an end. In order to keep up, Walt Disney Home Entertainment would need to contend with a whole new home entertainment format.

The reign of the DVD was about to begin.


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