Monday, January 14, 2013

C'mon, Disney, you know how to do this

WARNING: This week, I get into some really, really indignant Nerd on the Internet tones. Like, guest star on The Big Bang Theory bad. Still, it felt good to write, so I'm posting it anyway. Push up your glasses and check your pocket protectors—we're talking shop with Disney 3D rereleases!

We like the Disney thing here at Diversion 2.0. There's my substantially incomplete series on the entire Disney canon, obsession with Disney games, and my super gross Word document detailing every Disney Blu-ray that has come out and speculating which movies will release next in hi-def and when. Disney is my jam. So when Disney makes knuckle-headed moves with their theatrical distribution wing, I can't help but wince. Imagine your niece, an eight-year-old precocious little squirt, who likes to loudly blow bubbles with her milk in public places, except now she's doing it onstage at the school talent show, and she actually isn't blowing bubbles very with this time around.

It's like that.

Disney, having hastily green-lit shiny new 3D conversions of their popular films after The Lion King's rerelease made nearly $100 million last year theatrically, backed out of their commitment to reissue The Little Mermaid in theaters this September. Their strategy just wasn't working. Every subsequent rerelease made less and less money: Beauty and the Beast snagged $47 million, Finding Nemo barely made $41 million, and Monsters Inc. is limping its way past $30 million. Once thought a sure source for quick cash—do a quick conversion for a couple million, rerelease, and your coffers will fill themselves—Disney's plan to reap the benefits of old releases tanked.
My take: no duh.

A quick aside: I love the idea of rereleasing old Disney classics theatrically. Enjoying quality animation with an audience is a much different experience from enjoying it by myself, and basking in the picture quality and surround sound of a good theater setup never gets old. This idea can work.

In fact, it already has worked. Before home video became a thing, Disney would bring their old-school hits back into theaters every seven or so years. "For a new generation," or something like that; and that is why seemingly every man and woman raised in the United States has seen at least one "classic" Disney film (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Peter Pan, etc.) during their childhood. Disney was in the nostalgia business, and business was great.

With the advent of home video, though, the strategy became redundant. Why go through the trouble of carting around prints of The Aristocats to Hank's Cineplex and Bowling Alley in Ronan when you could put it in every Target, Shopko, and grocery store in the country? The theatrical rerelease thing died down in 1996 or so (I remember seeing Oliver & Company in theaters, and I don't remember much old Disney in theaters beyond that), and hasn't been a thing since.

Until last year, when Disney decided to flank The Lion King's 3D Blu-ray release by a two week "special engagement" in theaters. After it opened at number one with $30 million, though, Disney decided maybe it would try this theatrical rerelease thing again, and announced it would convert several of its films into 3D and put them back into theaters. Easy money, right?

You have to do it right, though.

Personally, I think Disney bungled it the moment they decided that Pixar movies would be the crux of their 3D rerelease strategy. Not that I don't love Pixar; they're an exceptional studio, and I actively love a good chunk of their filmography. That said, their decision to use Pixar films runs contra to their most important weapon in reissuing content: the Vault.

The Vault, as you probably know, is Disney's self-enforced moratorium. It's a place where Disney puts their most precious cargo, keeping it from the unwashed masses until, out of the blue, they decide to put it back on the market for a limited time. Then moms and dads who grew up on Bambi and The Jungle Book buy it because, hey, my kid can watch it to, and the scarcity drives demand; instead of a steady trickle of sales over several years, it's a huge shotgun blast of sales over the course of a year and a half before, wuh-oh, it's gone again.

I have no numbers to back this up, by the way. I'm going off of speculation, that law of Supply and Demand that I hear about, and the idea that, surely, if Warner Bros. wants to copy the whole Vault thing with the Harry Potter series of movies, it must work, even a little.

Anyway, the Vault. When it rereleased films theatrically before home video, Disney took their prints of Alice in Wonderland and Fantasia and threw them in a Vault until the time was ripe to bring 'em back out. That's the basis for the modern Vault system that Disney uses for its home video. It works. Why else would they do it for over fifty years (1944 saw Disney rerelease Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, mostly because the Disney studio was broke as hell during all of World War II and they needed cash)?

Pixar, to my knowledge, is not at the behest of the Vault. If I wanted to, I'm pretty sure I could waltz over to Kmart and pick up A Bug's Life on DVD for the sheer, unadulterated hell of it. I can't do that with, say, Aladdin. If there's no scarcity involved with finding the movie, why should I treat a rerelease like a big deal? Yeah, I can see it on a huge screen, but is that worth taking myself, my (hypothetical) wife, and our two (hypothetical) kids all the way to the theater, paying $11.50 a pop to get in, shelling out even more for concessions, and finagling with those damn 3D glasses? No thanks. I'll watch that at home.

By using the Vault, by creative scarcity, you're heading me off, making sure that I can't watch it at home. If I don't have a copy, you're forcing me to play your game and see it in the theater. When $30.15 million worth of audience members went and saw The Lion King in theaters during its opening week, they didn't go because wow! it's in 3D. They went because they hadn't seen The Lion King since 2002, when it was last on DVD, and wanted to watch it. If they could have bought The Lion King at any old time they were at Sam's Club, they wouldn't have bothered.

This is the problem with the movies Disney picked to rerelease. Beauty and the Beast had been out on Blu-ray since Fall 2010 when it hit theaters in January 2012, and both Finding Nemo and Monster's Inc. have been readily available at any time since they day they first hit home video. These are films that the kids have likely had on repeat in the DVD player, and who wants to put up with the time and expense to hear Nemo say "Touch the butt" for the thirty-sixth time?

Incidentally, I feel the exact same way about every 3D rerelease that whiffed at the box office this year, with the exception of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, because that was just asking for it.

The worst part—the worst part—is that, at the end of three seen-it-before releases, Disney had promised The Little Mermaid, a film that went in the Vault in January of 2009 and one that I've been waiting to see again with bated breath. It's a smashing picture, and one of those movies for audiences to actually rediscover, instead of simply rewatch. But no: Disney mismanaged their money-printing rerelease strategy spectacularly, and then got gun shy before they even got to the best part. I've been picturing myself in the theater, blown back in my seat when Ariel sings "Part of that World," for a year and a half. Now, nothing.

Yes, yes; what an awful first-world problem for me. I'll do just fine in picking up The Little Mermaid on Blu-ray when it drops, and enjoy the rest of Disney's suite of franchise pictures, tent poles, and whatever else they decide to release under the Dreamworks banner (I'm hoping for Lincoln 2!). Life goes on.

I'm not mad, really, at Disney. Just disappointed.