Who fueled the biggest opening-week hit of the summer, the aliens of ID4 — or Robin Williams of A3? Do the math, and Aladdin and the King of Thieves — the Walt Disney Company’s second direct-to-video sequel to Aladdin, released on Aug. 13 — appears to beat the record-breaking gross of Independence Day.
Howzat? Well, ID4 took in $81.5 million at the box office in its first five days. Industry sources estimate that King of Thieves will have sold about 6 million copies in its own five-day bow. With the public paying an average of $16 per tape at retail giants like Wal-Mart (where Disney does 60 percent of its video business) and at video stores, that translates to an extraterrestrial-whupping ”gross” of $96 million. ”It’s the appetite of the video marketplace,” says Ann Daly, president of Disney’s Buena Vista Home Video. ”The size in consumer dollars is something like three times [the theatrical market].”
Keen to outdo its previous Aladdin follow-up, The Return of Jafar (which sold 4.6 million copies its first week, even with The Simpsons‘ Dan Castellaneta subbing for Williams), Disney is touting Williams’ return on billboards and on the sides of buses. In total, it has orchestrated $70 million in cross-promotional efforts. ”That’s the kind of campaign usually associated with a movie expected to do $100 million box office,” says Tania Moloney, VP of Buena Vista Home Video publicity.
Why push so hard to build up a direct-to-video title? Perhaps because Disney’s home-video future may depend on it. The studio has now hawked virtually all its theatrical animated chestnuts, from Snow White to Pocahontas, at least once on video. And though the company limits availability to stoke demand, future reissues could bring diminishing returns. But fate smiled on Disney when Tad Stones, a producer-director in its TV animation division, suggested turning the planned TV special Return of Jafar into a VHS premiere — and struck gold. ”Direct-to-video was where you dumped things,” says Stones, who also helmed King of Thieves. ”Nobody expected that kind of interest.”
But Disney’s windfall isn’t prompting many imitators. ”It only works with a proven franchise,” says Leonard Maltin, animation scholar and author of The Disney Films. Though MCA/Universal scored with two direct-to-video Land Before Time sequels — which have sold more than 3 million copies each — the numbers for live-action video debuts, such as the company’s Darkman II: The Return of Durant, have been less than one tenth that size.
Besides, children’s titles rule the video sales charts, and no company has more popular characters to exploit than Disney: A Lion King direct-to-video sequel is in production; a Beauty and the Beast Christmas story is finished; follow-ups to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Lady and the Tramp, and 101 Dalmatians are in development.
Maltin doesn’t think much of all these sequels. ”I’d as soon see them leave those old films alone,” he says. ”If you’ve told a story well, it comes to a conclusion.” Sorry, Leonard — Disney’s conclusion appears to be, if at first you do succeed, draw, draw again.
(Reporting by Owen MacDonald and Chris Nutter)