Fantasia, and the marketing that made it a $500m VHS release


I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb to suggest that we all have a favourite Disney animated movie. Mine is Beauty & The Beast, for an abundance of reasons, not least that it caught me off guard and I wasn’t really expecting the utter treat I got. Yours is likely different.

But also, for all its merits, there are few people, I’d suggest, who list Fantasia as their top choice. Sure, I believe lots of people admire it, and there are segments of the film that remain cherished: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence is an obvious standout. It’s also bold, ambitious and full of beautiful work. Yet how many watch it on a loop? Furthermore, how many parents use it as their go-to Disney movie when they want to keep the kids quiet for a couple of hours?

Yet in 1990, Disney managed to turn Fantasia into its biggest selling video, in spite of it topping very few people’s go-to films list. More than that, come the start of 1991, Fantasia was the biggest selling video of all time, notching up 14.3 million sales in the US alone. To put that into some kind of context, Avatar – the biggest grossing film of all time at the box office – sold 10 million DVDs in America on its original release, The Dark Knight sold just shy of 11 million. Even at the peak of DVD’s success, 2006’s top title – Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest – was the only release that outsold Fantasia.

So why did so many people snap up a video that they didn’t necessarily intend to watch? Quite simply because of one of the best marketing campaigns Disney has ever come up with for a home release. A simple bit of Keynesian economics, threatening a restriction of supply and watching demand rocket.

The idea was simple: to release Fantasia on video, billed as Walt Disney’s Masterpiece. To put it on sale for 50 days only. And to tell people this would be their last chance ever to buy the film on video.

A couple of important notes, there. Firstly, Disney – of course – were already experts in limiting releases of titles, before returning them to their vaults for six or seven years. In days of old, this allowed Disney to re-release its animated classics in cinemas – a solid $40m of box office in the US was picked up each time – before a heavily-publicised video release. Fantasia was, arguably, the ultimate extension of that.

Secondly, then-Disney animation boss Jeffrey Katzenberg also announced that the studio was realising Walt Disney’s vision that Fantasia would be a living film. That is, new sequences would be added, and bits changed, as the film enjoyed eventual subsequent releases. This put Fantasia 2000 into motion, although at the time it was announced as Fantasia Continued, with a planned arrival date of 1997.

The VHS that the studio was peddling would thus be the last time to own the film in its original form on video.

Disney, it seems, wasn’t daft with its wording. Already by this stage, laserdisc had emerged as a film enthusiasts’ format, and DVD was in its early gestation. It was a fair bet that a new format would overtake VHS within a decade, and Disney was happy to take the gamble. Whilst the lines of its marketing were truthful as they were written, it left itself wiggle room to re-release Fantasia in the future, on other formats. That said, some reports suggest that Disney said it’d be the last time Fantasia would be available in its original form on any format. I worked in retail at the time, but don’t remember the promotional materials we received excluding future formats in that way. That said, there’s this, which suggests otherwise…

Katzenberg toured the world, giving relatively rare interviews to a large number of outlets. Notably, he was interviewed by Empire about the release by its editor at the time, Phillip Thomas. Thomas tried to quiz Katzenberg about non-Fantasia topics, but his subject wasn’t having it. Still, Katzenberg signed off by telling Thomas that he loved the magazine, and asked him to “tell your editor”.

Fantasia’s release was a phenomenon. Up until 1991, the best-selling VHS of all time had been E.T. The Extraterrestrial. Disney had 14.2m VHS tapes in the US, and 225,000 Laserdiscs of the film. Worldwide, in 50 days, it was estimated that the firm sold nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of Fantasia, of which $263m was pure profit.

Inevitably, so many copies being in circulation ended much hope of there being a collector’s market for the movie. Pretty much everyone knew someone who owned a copy, and second hand VHS tape prices have been depressed as a consequence. Furthermore, Disney – after unleashing Fantasia 2000 – would re-release the original film on both DVD and Blu-ray, in double packs with its updated version. Yet it would never enjoy anything like the numbers it did in the early 1990s, and never will again.

Disney would, though. Just a few years later, The Lion King snatched its top-selling video title from it, and it’s believed it still holds that crown to this day. I’m not generally a betting person, but I would lay a few quid on no VHS in the future outselling The Lion King



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