There’s gold in them DVDs

Theatricals reincarnated for the home

In the decade since Disney debuted its first movie sequel on video in 1994, “Aladdin” followup “The Return of Jafar,” Buena Vista Home Entertainment has generated more than $2 billion from video and DVD programming for the company.

As the division approaches its 10th anniversary, it has provided a model for how studios can recycle product for maximum profit, and at premium quality.

“Jafar” represented a home run right out of the gate, stunning the industry when about 10 million copies were sold, and this without Robin Williams reprising his role as the voice of Genie. (Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, the actor returned for the second vid sequel “Aladdin: King of Thieves” in 1996.)

While “Jafar” was essentially a spinoff pilot for an animated TV series, 1998’s “Lion King II: Simba’s Pride” featured much higher production values, including an original song that became part of the Tony-winning Broadway production.

The result? Consumers spent about $300 million buying and renting “Lion King II,” surpassing even Disney’s greatest expectations. Here was a direct-to-vid title that raked in nearly as much as its originator — the all-time top-grossing animated theatrical release at that time. The movie became the first to be inducted into the DVD Exclusive Awards’ Academy of Artistic Achievement.

A second sequel to be released in February, “The Lion King 1½,” boasts the return of the entire original voice cast and newly produced versions of Elton John and Tim Rice songs sung by Nathan Lane.

Since then, Disney has been cranking out a couple sequels to recent and classic animated films each year, with follow-ups to such movies as “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lady and the Tramp” regularly but quietly raking in $100 million-$150 million apiece.

It’s a cash-printing formula that has worked so well that most other studios have followed suit. Disney-owned Miramax has become the most aggressive in the arena after Disney, with a new computer-animated franchise of movies introduced last month based on the Lego Bionicle toys and comicbooks to go along with the “Pokemon” movies it distributes.

Miramax is also expanding its line of live-action family movie franchises, including the “Air Bud” and “MVP” series to go along with its growing stable of genre DVD premiere franchises under the Dimension label, such as “Children of the Corn,” “Mimic” and “Hellraiser.”

After releasing its only live-action DVD premiere movie sequel in 1997 — “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” — Disney jumped back into that arena as well this year with “Inspector Gadget 2,” starring French Stewart and featuring an original song and musicvideo, and the Oct. 21 release, “George of the Jungle 2.”

Meanwhile, Disney has ramped up its animation efforts to the point that an entire division has been spun off that will release five DVD premiere movies in 2004, including the first CGI feature film starring Mickey Mouse.

A couple of years ago, the quality of these DVD premiere movies produced by DisneyToon Studios had matured to the point that the parent Disney film studio began pulling one or two of them out of the video release schedule each year to go theatrical.

On Presidents Day weekend each February, titles like “Return to Neverland” — with relatively miniscule budgets of about $15 million (even after being elevated for theatrical standards) — typically gross between $35 million-$50 million in the U.S. alone before they even get to DVD.

In addition to the five DVD premiere movies coming in 2004, more than 40 projects are in various stages of development at the DisneyToon unit, with 11 of those projects each in the midst of three- to five-year production process.

Among them are “Tarzan II,” “Lilo & Stitch II,” “Dumbo II,” sequels to “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “The Fox and the Hound,” and another Winnie the Pooh movie called “The Heffalump Movie.”

Also in production is “Bambi II,” which DisneyToon Studios executive veep Sharon Morrill describes as, “The kind of film Walt would have made.”