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Family Affairs

4 Jan, 2003 By: Dan Bennett

Welcome back, Jafar.

This must have been the cry of retailers in 1994 when Buena Vista Home Entertainment released the direct-to-video title Return of Jafar, even though many of them may never have heard of Jafar.

They would soon enough. Return of Jafar, a direct-to-video sequel to the monster theatrical hit Aladdin, kick-started direct-to-video family titles, selling an impressive -- and unexpected -- 8 million copies.

Disney then began a calculated series of direct-to-video family titles, including 1998's The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, a title that sold a phenomenal 12.1 million units. Many others have followed, including the recent full-length feature A Very Merry Pooh Year and the upcoming titles 101 Dalmatians II: Patch's London Adventure, scheduled for Jan. 21 release, and Inspector Gadget 2, scheduled for March 11 release.

“For us, it's well more than 2 billion units in direct-to-video, so certainly it's been viable and profitable,” said Gordon Ho, SVP of marketing for Buena Vista Home Entertainment.

“On the family side, we've found that continued expansion works,” he said. “We started out with a core franchise that had recently been released, then wondered what would happen with classic Disney titles.”

Direct-to-video titles serving as sequels to Lady and the Tramp and Cinderella followed.

“These are titles to spend quality time at home with, family time,” Ho said. “We listened to the consumers, and what they wanted from these titles was that quality. They wanted strong stories and moral messages.”

Disney and other studios showed retailers how a direct-to-video title could, in effect, premiere in their stores instead of theaters. Disney and its sister company Miramax Films then charged into the live-action market. The company streets The Legend 2, starring Jet Li, on Feb. 2, and the thriller Asunder, starring Jet Li, on Feb. 11.

“We found that the combination of familiar franchise, recognizable actors and branding also helped on that side of the business,” Ho said. “Direct-to-video has really been hitting on all cylinders.”

Other studios have released DTV sequels to animated theatrical hits, most notably Universal Studios Home Video, which since 1994 has released eight sequels to The Land Before Time, a 1988 theatrical release about dinosaurs produced by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

The latest release, The Land Before Time IX: Journey to Big Water, came out Dec. 10 and was eagerly anticipated by retailers. Back in August, Mark Lowery, video product manager for the Tower Records and Video chain, told Video Store Magazine that some of the chain's 98 stores were already getting calls from parents, asking when it will be available.

“It's an evergreen franchise,” Lowery said.“People know it comes out every December, and they look for it. It's been a perennial seller for us for years.”

Indeed, since the first direct-to-video sequel to The Land Before Time was released nine years ago, Universal Studios Home Video has sold more than 50 million videos in the franchise, said Louis Feola, president of Universal Cartoon Studios and Universal Franchise Development.

In August, he told Video Store Magazine that he credits the series' success to well-developed characters and story lines.

“It's kind of an old-fashioned approach -- compelling characters and compelling stories, with ordinary people taking on extraordinary risks,” he said.

Warner Home Video has also scored success with direct-to-video product.

“We've enjoyed consistent growth and successful franchises in this market,” said Ewa Martinoff, VP of family entertainment marketing. “There is an awareness factor to these titles. They extend the entertainment value of the franchises consumers enjoy.”

Warner has done well with four “Scooby-Doo” titles and several live-action features starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, including the recent When in Rome.

Another recent hit is Baby Looney Tunes. On the way is Scooby-Doo and the Legend of the Lost Vampire, streeting March 4.

“With titles like ‘Scooby-Doo,' we've been able to capitalize on the success from the theatrical side,” Martinoff said. “That's a huge upside for marketing, to have that awareness already out there. Consumers consider these titles unknown elements, and that adds to the excitement level.

“Meanwhile, the parent knows what to expect when they buy these titles, and they have something in hand that actually belongs to them.”

Retailers have increased shelf space for direct-to-video titles as the product has proven itself.

“These have become proven products, so retail now has a level of expectation,” Martinoff said. “They expect us to deliver, and our strategy is to step up our level of commitment and enjoy continued growth.”

Big Idea Productions enjoys success with its megaselling “VeggieTales” titles, which have direct-to-video distribution, though the company also released a successful theatrical title in 2002. Direct-to-video is still a category the company must work at constantly, though.

“We've seen direct-to-video slow down quite a bit in the face of the current theatrical marketing campaigns,” said Dan Merrell, SVP of sales and marketing for Big Idea. “For successful direct-to-video, you need to have strong price points and configure what features are needed to satisfy the age group you seek.

“We're all competing for space now, so you must stay strategically competitive.”A distinction setting Big Idea apart, Merrell said, is the spiritual nature of its titles.

“There aren't a lot of titles out there trying to teach spiritual values,” he said. “Retailers know those titles sell, on the book rack and the video shelf.”

Moving toward theatrical releases also helps past and current direct-to-video product, Merrell said.

“We sold much more of our product in video stores while our movie was in theaters,” he said. “We're also looking more at longer-form product. Titles of different lengths all have their place.

“We're also looking for ancillary products to sell with the direct-to-video titles,” he said. “Give consumers something to latch on to, a familiar name and perhaps something extra, and they will respond.”

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