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THE MORNING BUZZ: It's All In the Timing

18 Jun, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

A couple of weeks ago Editor-in-Chief Kurt Indvik said something that got me to thinking (and we all know how dangerous that is!). Kurt pondered the “Disney approach” to releasing its special titles, in which the title is around for a while, then Disney puts it on moratorium and stops shipping copies for 10 years.

That model is a great illustration of how studios insist on clinging to their old media business models, even in the face of rapidly advancing new media technology.

For decades Disney's theatrical strategy of releasing its family titles every 10 years worked like a charm. The studio rereleased Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia to theaters every 10 years, each time appealing to the latest generation of parents to share those warm, fuzzy memories of Disney magic with their own offspring.

This was a successful strategy for the studio. Its animated feature releases became special events timed to hit a new audience and generate sales of licensed products to a new crop of youngsters each decade.

Disney transferred the strategy to home video, letting supplies of each rerelease dwindle – and advertising the fact weeks in advance to create the illusion of scarcity and, with any luck, a video gold rush leading up to the moratorium.

While Disney is still a force to be reckoned with in the family video arena, I can't help thinking British supplier Hit Entertainment has a wiser approach for packaged family media: Get it released and keep it out there. As the supplier's CEO said in a recent CNN interview, “we have a brand new audience every 18 months.”

Anyone who's not sure about that approach need look no further than Bob the Builder, the Tim Taylor for Go-gurt gobblers. At least one of Bob's songs even went to No. 1 on the British music sales charts not long ago, another testament to the power of family product. There are Bob the Builder books, music, videos, clothing, toys, games and just about anything else that appeals to tots. Bob has his own aisle at Toys ‘R' Us.

The management at Hit realizes Bob has a narrower window – that children will outgrow him at an earlier age than, say, a Scooby-Doo or Pocahontas. But much of Disney's “family” fare is really children's product with no more endurance than Bob has in a child's life.

Controlled rerelease is a great strategy theatrically and maybe even with a medium like tape that can break down, unravel or deteriorate under the weight of PBJ fingerprints, but it's a big mistake with digital media.

As Disney's profits from big-budget animated features shrink and media storage becomes more durable, the old strategy looks increasingly foolish. For all those years that Snow White or Cinderella is out of circulation, Disney is leaving money on the table. Money I'm quite sure Hit is happy to collect in exchange for Bob the Builder items. Even the good news for Disney is a lesson from Bob, embodied in his theme song: “Can we fix it? Yes we can!”

Disney's moratorium strategy is a relic from a bygone age. If the studio doesn't start to wise up, the mouse ears will end up in the same scrap heap with all those TV rabbit ears and for the same reason – they stopped picking up the signal.

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