Made-for kidvids become global goldmines for Disney’s coffers

Mouse is mad about sequels

SYDNEY — When Disney made a movie specifically for the homevideo market, some vid retailers overseas were wary, believing that meant it wasn’t good enough to be released in cinemas.

Not any more. Disney Video Premieres is a fast-growing and highly profitable business for the studio. And the distrib believes the direct-to-video category still has a lot more potential overseas.

“That stigma has been put to rest but we’re not quite there yet in putting the hype behind DTV and getting the shelf space it deserves,” Dennis Maguire, president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment Intl., tells Variety.

Even so, video preems are goldmine for the studio. Since the first such venture, “Return of Jafar” in 1994, Disney has released 22 DTV titles internationally, generating more than $1 billion in retail revenues.

The average production budget is believed to be around $15 million– much cheaper than theatricals, which cost $80 million and $100 million.

“Our budgets are a fraction of those for feature animation because our animation process is much quicker and we make fewer changes,” says Sharon Morrill, exec VP of Burbank-based Disney Television Animation.

The Hollywood studios bank on a typical video release bringing in revs overseas that equate to about 50% of its domestic sales, according to Maguire. But as collectible items, Disney toons, including video preems, can notch 55%-75% of their domestic results abroad, Maguire says.

“The budgets have grown over the past few years (but) you can see the quality on the screen and in the voice talent and original music,” he added.

As one barometer of the category’s burgeoning popularity, the distrib released “Return to Neverland” on video in the U.K. last month, selling 75% more copies in its first week than “The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea” chalked up in its first week in the territory 18 months ago. The “Mermaid” sequel went on to sell 5 million units internationally, worth more than $72 million retail.

Launched in 1999, “The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride” remains the biggest selling DTV production overseas, clocking 13 million units and store sales of more than $225 million.

The prolific TV Animation division is cranking out four direct-to-vids and one theatrical film per year at studios in L.A., Tokyo and Sydney.

Set for release next year are “The Jungle Book II” (which will debut theatrically everywhere except Japan), “Stich’s Movie” and “Atlantis II: Milo’s Return.” Among the projects in production or development are “The Lion King 1 1/2,” “Pooh’s Easter Movie,” “The World of TinkerBell,” “Piglet’s Big Movie” (also earmarked for cinema release) and sequels to “Mulan” and “Dumbo.”

Given the modest budgets, it’s remarkable how such productions can attract top talent. Indeed, some thesps seem almost proprietorial about the characters they’ve helped create.

Nathan Lane is reprising the voice of Timon in “The Lion King 1 1/2.” John Goodman and Haley Joel Osment are lending their vocal talents to the “Jungle Book” sequel. Phil Collins penned three tunes for “Tarzan II.” Carly Simon contributed original songs for “Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year,” due out this Christmas.

Two upcoming DVDs are breaking new ground: “Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas” will be the first Disney feature to use 3-D animation, and “The Three Musketeers” will mark the first time Mickey, Donald and Goofy have appeared together in a movie.

Disney has had an animation facility in Sydney for 14 years. It’s where “Return to Neverland” was animated, and its 235 employees currently are working on the “Jungle Book” sequel and “Lion King 1 1/12,” to be followed by “The Three Musketeers.”

Disney TV Animation Australia general manager/VP Phil Oakes says his animators each turn out 10 feet of film per week, vs. the average U.S. output of three feet.

Moreover, there are minimal retakes on DTV productions compared with features. “When we finish something, we like to think it’s locked and we won’t have to make many changes,” he said.

Morrill says the decisions on which of her division’s films will hit the big screen are made during storyboarding and often depend on distribution’s needs and timing issues — “not so much the quality” of individual projects.

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