Disney has used the word "classics" at various times to describe three types of feature-length films which include animation. The first type, identified most closely with the "Classics" label, consists of animated features which contain one continuous story. The second type are films made up of several shorter self-contained animated stories. This type includes the six package films produced from 1942 to 1949, most of which also include some live-action characters. One other film of this type was The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, released theatrically in 1977, which was a compilation of several shorter Winnie the Pooh films that had been released previously. The third type of features sometimes referred to by Disney as "classics" are largely live action, but contain fully animated sequences or characters. Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Pete's Dragon are some examples of this type. Some of the animated package films and live-action films featuring animation were released on home video in the early 1980s, such as The Three Caballeros and Fun and Fancy Free in 1982, but most of them were not big sellers.
Disney's Classics category was originally defined during discussions for the April 18, 1983 launch of the Disney Channel. While the people at Disney were looking through their inventory of films to see what was available for the new cable channel, they decided that they could show some favorite films such as Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins, but that 15 other animated movies would never be shown.
These 15 animated feature films had never been shown on television at that time and had never been released on video, or anywhere else outside of a theater. These movies became the untouchables. These 15 movies were the foundation upon which the Disney company was built. Every time they were re-released to theaters (on a roughly seven-year cycle), they earned money like new releases and it was felt that allowing them on video or on television could end their lives as theatrical releases. The 15 untouchables were the following: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound. By the time the Masterpiece Collection replaced the Classics collection in the domestic market, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Aristocats were the only two of the original 15 Classics remaining unreleased.
All of the single-story animated features ever made by Disney were included in the list of 15 Classics except for two. The exceptions were Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland, both of which had been shown on television at the very earliest opportunity. The Disneyland TV series began with The Disneyland Story, but the very next episode, broadcast on November 3, 1954, was Alice in Wonderland, edited to fit into the one-hour TV time slot. The following season kicked off September 14, 1955, with a one-hour version of Dumbo. Both of these movies were released on video in the first two years of Walt Disney Home Video, at first for rental only, then for sale as well, but the untouchables remained locked in the vault. While they were always available, Dumbo and Alice have made millions in subsequent home video releases.
By 1984, the home video market had changed, and shortly before he left office in September of that year, Ron W. Miller, Walt Disney Productions' president and CEO, presented a long-term plan to begin releasing the Classics on video.
In mid-1984, Walt Disney Home Video began a campaign to develop the collector's market for their video product with the release of the "Cartoon Classics Limited Gold Edition" collection of animated shorts priced at $29.95 each. The packaging for these differed in several ways from previous Disney video releases and they set a precedent for the feature-length classics to follow. While previous Disney movies were packaged in a white clamshell case, the "Limited Gold Edition" tapes were packaged in black cases and featured gold-stamped packaging and cassettes. Many were accompanied by advertising campaigns warning consumers that "When they're gone, they're gone". The seven 1984 Limited Gold Edition titles sold 610,000 copies and greatly raised awareness of the idea of video moratorium.
The first title in the line was Robin Hood, released on December 4, 1984. Disney thought the idea of releasing any of its animated classics might threaten future theatrical reissue revenue. Robin Hood, however, was viewed as a good first choice because it wasn't held in such high esteem as some of the other titles, and was less likely to get another theatrical release at all (a 1982 reissue proved disappointing). A writer in The New York Times, discussing this "first title of the much-trumpeted new Walt Disney Classics home-video label," described it as "hardly one of the great triumphs of Disney storytelling", despite recommending it for younger children.
The cassettes, priced at $79.95, sold more to rental stores and hardcore collectors than to general consumers. The Laserdisc version at $34.95 was more affordable for consumers.
Richard Fried, marketing director for WDHV, said that The Sword in the Stone would probably be the next title available.
In contrast to subsequent years, in which one of the Classics titles served as a tentpole for pre-Christmas sales promotions, there was no major push for sales of Robin Hood, which at $79.95 was out of reach of all but the most dedicated fans. Disney's music video series, DTV at $29.95 per cassette, was the core of Disney's 1984 Christmas promotion. Remaining inventory of the "Limited Gold Edition" of shorts were also available at the same price.
In 1984, Pinocchio was reissued theatrically to great success, grossing over $26 million at the domestic box office and prompting discussions at the highest levels of Disney on its potential as the next video release. On one side were chairmen Roy E. Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg, as well as long-time Disney executives, who argued that they might be gambling away future theatrical bonanzas like the one the film had just experienced. On the other side were Michael Eisner and other fellow supporters, who argued that Pinocchio was making nothing sitting in the vault and that immediate video release could capitalize on advertising from the recent reissue. Eisner had come from Paramount, which was experimenting with some daring low price experiments in the video marketplace. But Eisner compromised with the conservative faction, who wanted Pinocchio to be "available", but not "too available". It was priced at $79.95 on cassette and $34.95 on laserdisc in Classics packaging, just as Robin Hood had been. The Sword in the Stone, once considered Robin Hood's follow-up on video, aired on the Disney Channel instead.
In May 1985, Disney announced a July 16 release date for Pinocchio, with a $1 million advertising campaign which they claimed was the first national network TV spot campaign for a single video title.
About 125,000 copies of Pinocchio were sold in July and August at the $79.95 price, which were lower than previously expected. In August 1985, Bill Mechanic became head of Walt Disney Home Video. Mechanic argued that the price had to be lowered on Pinocchio to boost sales. At the beginning of September, Disney announced a temporary price drop to $29.95 for Pinocchio and 20 other titles, including Dumbo, now also in Classics packaging and reduced from its $84.95 price. Robin Hood was also back at the lower price, making a total of three titles in black Classics packaging.
The announcement of the unexpected price drop caused public relations problems for WDHV, who ended up offering to buy back full-priced new copies from stores and used copies from consumers at the full retail price. The price reduction was valid from December 3, 1985 until January 31, 1986. This promotion made Pinocchio a bestseller. Disney extended the cut-off date for Pinocchio to February 28, 1986 declaring that it had exceeded their expectations. Home Viewer magazine in Philadelphia estimated the total shipments of Pinocchio at 250,000 copies. After it was withdrawn from video production the first time in 1986, it began airing on the Disney Channel.
The Sword in the Stone was released next at $79.95 on March 25, 1986, joining Robin Hood and Dumbo on store shelves and becoming the fourth Classic on video.
On May 27, 1986, to take advantage of this $1.5 million promotional campaign, Disney brought back 13 titles from moratorium, headlined by Alice in Wonderland, which became the fifth title in Classics packaging. This promotion, which was planned to run through the summer of 1986, included packaging that was unusual for WDHV product at the time. The titles, which had all previously been released in plastic clamshells, were re-packaged this time in cardboard slipcases instead.
Despite Pinocchio's massive success on video, some Disney executives were still concerned about the fiscal future of the animated films if they were to be available in the homes of millions. In November 1985, Disney was preparing for a theatrical reissue of Sleeping Beauty for the following Spring. At the same time, according to Michael Eisner, video executive Bill Mechanic gave a presentation to the studio, successfully arguing that Sleeping Beauty might make almost as much money on video in a year than in theatrical reissues over a 28-year period. However, according to James B. Stewart's DisneyWar, Mechanic was arguing this case for Cinderella, but Roy Disney and Katzenberg shot down those plans. Stewart also insisted that the decision to release Sleeping Beauty on video was a compromise, as that film was a less successful commodity compared to Cinderella.
On October 14, 1986, Sleeping Beauty became the sixth Classic on video. It was the first title to be released in VHS Hi-Fi. Unlike the previous titles, which were released at $79.95 or $84.95 and reduced in price later, Sleeping Beauty was released for the first time on video at only $29.95.
Sleeping Beauty was also the first Disney Classics video to be digitally processed (or "digitally mastered", as described on post-1988 videos) and in stereo sound, labeled as a "VHS Hi-Fi Stereo Videocassette".
The "Wonderland Sale" was extended until the end of 1986, and Sleeping Beauty became the centerpiece of a new $6 million promotional campaign entitled "Bring Disney home for good", the biggest campaign ever in the home video business. The promotion featured all six animated Classics released to that point (including The Sword in the Stone, reduced in price for the first time, and Pinocchio, back from a short 8½ month moratorium) and five favorite live action features at $29.95, all in white clamshells with slide-in artwork. All six animated Classics collection titles were also available in a limited edition box set for $179.70. This promotion included assorted Christmas-themed titles at $19.95 and $14.95, and Disney sold almost 5 million tapes that Christmas season, more than any other studio.
After the sale price ended on February 28, 1987 (extended from the originally announced January 31), 1.2 million copies of Sleeping Beauty had been sold and it became the best-selling videocassette of 1986, although it could not knock Paramount out of the top three spots on the all-time top-sellers list. It ultimately sold 3 million copies.
At the end of January, Robin Hood was withdrawn from production, followed by Pinocchio in April, and the prices of the three remaining animated Classics, besides Sleeping Beauty, as well as the live action titles from the "Wonderland Sale", changed to $84.95 at the end of the sale. In practice, many stores still had stock left from the $29.95 price, so very few would have been sold at the higher price.
The seventh Classics video, Lady and the Tramp, which was released on October 6, 1987, was also released at $29.95 to follow the success of Sleeping Beauty. Disney spokespeople confidently predicted that they expected to sell double the 1.2 million copies that Sleeping Beauty achieved. Lady and the Tramp had 2 million pre-orders, and eventually sold 3.2 million copies, making it the best-selling videocassette of all time, edging out Paramount's Top Gun and 20th Century Fox's Die Hard. Disney's total Christmas sell-through promotion shattered industry records with 5.5 million units ordered by prebook time and a total of 7.5 million units sold.
Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty were withdrawn on March 31, 1988, leaving Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland, and The Sword in the Stone remaining as the active Classics collection titles.
Cinderella was finally released to video on October 4, 1988, after a $35 million box office success the previous year. It was clearly announced in advance that the title would be withdrawn from distribution on April 30, 1989.
A special $26.99 price was available until the end of November only, after which the price went up to the $29.95 price point of the other Classics. A limited edition lithograph, created by animator Marc Davis was available to anyone who pre-ordered the title between July 11 and October 3.
The Disney Christmas ad campaign included a $10 million joint promotion with Coca-Cola USA and another $20 million to $25 million funded by Disney itself. The 35-title Christmas promotion broke the industry record set by Disney's 1987 promotion. By the September 1, 1988 pre-order deadline, Disney had orders for 7.4 million tapes, including 5.3 million copies of Cinderella. Cinderella finished second on the all-time best sellers list at a final 7.2 million units, however, due to competition from what was then the highest grossing film of all time, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which eventually sold 14 million copies. Final sales for the holiday promotion was 11.5 million units in total.
Bambi, which Disney claimed was their highest-grossing film ever, was released on September 28, 1989. Bambi was the first Disney video to have a cross promotion, with Crest toothpaste. The new lower price of $26.99 could be further reduced if consumers took advantage of a $3.00 rebate (available from release day until November 30) by sending in proofs of purchase of two tubes of Crest.
A $60 million advertising campaign (again, the industry's biggest campaign ever) promoted both Bambi (on the Disney label) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (on the Touchstone label). Unlike Disney's two biggest competitors that year, Universal's The Land Before Time and MGM's The Wizard of Oz, both of which had ads on the cassettes, the two big Disney titles had none, Bill Mechanic saying that it "wasn't appropriate". Oliver & Company did not come out on home video until after its 1996 theatrical re-release.
While announcing the video release of Bambi, Disney refused to say when, or even if, it would ever be shown on television, but they did announce the Disney Channel debut of Cinderella for October 14, 1989, followed by four more showings that month.
By prebook day, Bambi was already the second biggest seller of all time at 9.8 million units. It and the other 51 titles in the promotion had pre-orders of 14.7 million units.
When Bambi was released in 1989, Dumbo and The Sword in the Stone were repackaged in different covers, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks was back on video after a moratorium.
Ever since Sleeping Beauty in 1986, there had been a new title in the Classics line every year in the months just before Christmas, but never at any other time of year. Partly because of that, Disney's announcement in early March, 1990, of the coming release of The Little Mermaid was a surprise to many. The May 18 release date was not unusual, but the film was still playing in theatres at the time. All the previous Classics were many years old, but it had only been 4½ months since The Little Mermaid's November 17, 1989 theatrical release, and it might never be able to be released theatrically for a second time if the video release took its audience away. Disney found that many people wanted to buy the film and they did not want to wait until the traditional Christmas shopping period. The Little Mermaid was the first post-15 title to come to the Classics video collection.
The pricing was $26.99, the same as Bambi, but this time a $3.00 rebate was available from Disney itself with no additional purchase required, and there were no commercial tie-ins involved. Disney promised its biggest TV advertising campaign ever, along with extensive print advertising.
By July 30, 1990, The Little Mermaid had sold 7.5 million cassettes, and it eventually sold 10 million units, making it the top-selling video release of 1990.
The Little Mermaid introduced a new policy at Disney, called the Retailer Profit Protection Plan. That was primarily designed to put all retailers of Disney product on an equal footing. Retailers violating the policy would be denied co-op advertising allowances from Disney. The first provision was a "minimum advertised price" (MAP). Retailers could never be advertised any price lower than $18.75 inclusive of any rebates and value-added offers. In addition, Disney established a rule regarding the "nationally advertised availability date" (NAAD). Any advertising appearing before the NAAD had to clearly show the NAAD. Along with the NAAD of May 18 went a Warehouse Release Date of May 14, the earliest ship date for distributors and rackjobbers, and a Will Call date of May 16, the last being the first allowable day for sales to the public. This difference between the official advertised date and the first actual date of sale continued for several years on every Disney, Touchstone, Hollywood, and Buena Vista video release.
The release of The Little Mermaid early in the year left space for another Classic before Christmas, and Peter Pan was the logical choice, coming off of a theatrical re-release the year before. The September 21, 1990 date was announced the day The Little Mermaid hit store shelves, and the price was a low for Disney's Classics of only $24.99. A cross-promotion with Nabisco, available from the release date through the holiday season, allowed consumers to get a $5.00 rebate with the purchase of three boxes of crackers, bringing the effective retail price under $20.00.
Asked again about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, spokesperson Tania Steele told The Los Angeles Daily News, "'Snow White' will never be on video, according to Roy Disney, (Walt Disney Co chairman) Michael Eisner and (Walt Disney Studios chairman) Jeffrey Katzenberg.... It goes to the roots of the company."
As announced on May 18, 1990, Disney stopped selling The Little Mermaid and Peter Pan on April 30, 1991, and publicized this date in a "Disappearing Classics" promotion. Peter Pan had sold about 7 million copies, according to The Los Angeles Times.
The two releases got awards for their packaging and success.
In February 1991, Disney announced that it would be releasing The Jungle Book on video. Owing to the success of The Little Mermaid, it would be released on May 3, 1991 instead of sometime during the holiday season, and would market the release in a similar fashion to Mermaid. It sold at $24.99; a $5.00 rebate was offered by Nabisco, reducing the price even further.
Disney spokesperson Tania Steele explained Disney's limited release policy to The New York Times: "They are good to have on video, but they were created for the theater. When they go off sale on video, the present commitment is that they will never go back." Furthermore, she said in reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which had never been released on home video until 1994.
No sooner was The Jungle Book out than Disney was announcing the re-release of Robin Hood ($24.99) at the very unusual mid-summer date of July 12. The title had been on moratorium since 1987. It was an unusual time to release a major sell-through title, since many North American children are on vacation at that time of year and less likely to be staying inside watching movies. Releasing Robin Hood in July allowed Disney a head start before Fox Video's Home Alone, which was expected to be released in August. It also allowed it to take advantage of the publicity surrounding Warner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (starring Kevin Costner), which was then in theaters.
With the release of Robin Hood, Disney launched a new type of TV and print advertising campaign. The campaign, worth $40 million between July and December, was the first brand-oriented campaign in the home video industry.
The specific promotion around Robin Hood allowed consumers who purchased it along with any Disney feature-length film listed at $22.99 or more between July 12 and September 15, 1991 to get a $5.00 rebate from Disney.
Also with Robin Hood, Disney promoted what it now called "Year-Round Classics" ($24.99 each), including Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland, and The Sword in the Stone.
All new Disney Classics video releases in this period (except the re-releases of Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland and The Sword in the Stone, which all received new tape masters; Dumbo and The Sword in the Stone kept the 1989 artwork, while Alice in Wonderland kept the 1988 artwork) were in stereo Hi-Fi and now labeled as being "mono-compatible".
There were rumors that The Rescuers Down Under, 101 Dalmatians, or Fantasia would be Disney's pre-Christmas release, but in May Disney executives denied any plans to release Fantasia either in late 1991 or in the following spring.
At a July 2 press conference, Disney officials refused to comment on Fantasia, but they did confirm the release of The Rescuers Down Under on September 20 at $24.99. A $5.00 mail-in refund from Procter & Gamble was also available. The advertising campaign from August until the end of the year was valued by Disney at $75 million and described by Billboard as "probably the most sizable multiproduct sell-through holiday campaign in the history of home video". Disney declared October 1991 "Magic Month of Video".
Although Roy Disney ultimately became a supporter of the decision to release the animated classics on video, he initially objected to Fantasia, as he felt that it was too important to the family's legacy. Michael Eisner was initially reluctant to do so as well, but was finally convinced after some market research and decided that the revenues of a video sale would be successful enough to generate interest in a sequel (Walt Disney's original intention for Fantasia was to continually update the film with new segments). Eisner was successfully able to convince the Disney family to let the film be released.
Fantasia was finally released on November 1, 1991, despite all the denials, and it was a phenomenal success, particularly on Laserdisc. Fantasia was Disney's first animated film to be released simultaneously worldwide (in North America plus 46 international territories). The domestic release was limited to 50 days; the international market for 100. Despite the Classics logo preceding the film on video copies, there was no reference to it being part of the collection in its packaging; it was referred to as "Walt Disney's Masterpiece" instead.
The company shipped 9.45 million cassettes on release day, and after receiving reorders for 2 million units, it temporarily stopped accepting orders on November 7. It took until the second half of December before duplication could catch up with reorders from the first week of release.
Even more impressive was Fantasia's release on laserdisc. Wholesale shipments on release day totalled 190,000 units, breaking the previous record of about 66,000 units set by Paramount's Ghost in May of that year. Fantasia would eventually sell 14.4 million videocassettes and discs.
101 Dalmatians was released on video on April 10, 1992. The Great Mouse Detective followed on July 17, with The Rescuers released on September 18.
On October 30, 1992, the $141 million-grossing Beauty and the Beast came to video. It was a huge hit, selling 20 million cassettes and landing $200 million in revenue. Walt Disney Home Video had crossed the $1 billion mark.
Disney opted to delay the laserdisc release for the theatrical version of Beauty and the Beast until the fall of 1993; the studio did make available a film festival-screened "work-in-progress" print on disc in the interim. This measure was to diminish the threat of video pirates making copies derived from the laserdisc (which are not copy-protected) and selling them in international markets, where the film was yet to be available for home release. It was the first Disney film to have a widescreen laserdisc release.
101 Dalmatians went on moratorium on March 31, 1993, followed by Beauty and the Beast on April 2, then The Great Mouse Detective, The Rescuers, and The Rescuers Down Under on April 30.
After the elaborate restoration and reissue of Pinocchio in summer 1992, the new restored edition of Pinocchio was released on video on March 26, 1993. It was also sold in another cross-promotion with Crest toothpaste, allowing consumers to get a rebate of $4.00 from its $24.99 retail price. Pinocchio was advertised as "Available for the last time this century", which turned out to be false, for in 1999 Disney released a 60th Anniversary Edition of the film. It also brought back the black page-curl flap on the lower-right corner like on the 1980s Disney Classic videos, except on this video it read "Restored to Its Original Brilliance!" Much like Fantasia, the packaging referred to the film as "Walt Disney's Masterpiece", but the film opens with the Classics logo on the VHS.
On October 1, 1993, Disney released another animated Classic to videocassette, Aladdin. It became the best-selling video release in the Classics line. Like Beauty and the Beast, Disney delayed the laserdisc release of Aladdin for nearly a year; it was eventually released, in both letterbox and pan-and-scan formats, on September 21, 1994.
Both Pinocchio and Aladdin were placed on moratorium in the spring of 1994.
The Fox and the Hound was released on March 4, 1994 on video and remained in stock until April 30, 1995. It was also the last release in the Walt Disney Classics line. With the video release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney's first animated feature, the packaging of the Classics line in the United States and Canada was changed. All the existing titles in the Classics series (except for Pinocchio, Fantasia, The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin) were re-packaged in the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection line.