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'Straight to Video' Picks Up Steam

The Disney publicity machine is gearing up for its latest animated release, "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride," Oct. 27. But viewers of the sequel will be eating strictly home-microwaved popcorn. The film, which won't be shown in theaters, is being released "straight to video" (STV).

STV was once considered the sole province of low-budget, high-action, low-concept quickies, not deemed worthy of promotion or theatrical release. But it has taken on a new image, transformed in the wake of a Disney initiative.

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The shift began when Disney spun its popular animated movie "Aladdin" into an STV sequel, "The Return of Jafar." Actor Robin Williams declined to revoice the roll of the genie for the STV. But the video sold 16 million copies anyway, and the company announced sequel plans for other animated movies, including "Beauty and the Beast," "Pocahontas," and "Hercules."

By the third "Aladdin" effort, the Disney alchemy had begun to transform the image of STV. This time, Mr. Williams readily agreed to provide the genie's voice.

Now, with the "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride," virtually all the major vocal talents of the first hit movie have returned.

Other companies are scrambling to follow Disney's lucrative lead. DreamWorks is reported to be developing an STV sequel for its current hit, "Antz." Fox Home Video has produced a prequel to "Casper," as well as a sequel to "FernGully ... the Last Rainforest." And Universal Home Video is up to No. 6 in its animated "Land Before Time" STV series.

The trend has hit live-action movies as well. Disney has spun its "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" movie into two sequels, the first theatrical, the second on video. The math on these two movies illustrates the reason for the trend. "Honey, I Blew Up the Kid," the first sequel, cost $40 million. The second sequel cost $7 million and took much less production time.

"This is an attempt by us to give the consumer more Disney, more of the movie they want to see," explains Bob Chapek, senior vice president of marketing at Buena Vista Home Entertainment, a Disney subsidiary. "The theatrical venue is fine, but limited for family fare because they don't have enough venues," he adds.

But New Jersey-based Alan Caruba, a longtime media analyst, sees Disney's strategy as just good business.

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"Disney is engaged in an effort to maximize the sale of their products in every possible way," he says. He cites as an example the franchising of "Beauty and the Beast" into an STV sequel. It continues the momentum of a years-old movie that already had been recycled into a live Broadway show, which in turn has spawned theatrical road shows around the world. And with "Lion King," CD-ROM and video-game spinoffs are being released alongside the sequel.

While he does allow Disney high marks for sheer business acumen, Mr. Caruba frets that "this is one small part of Disney's quest for total dominance, to create the entire world according to Disney."

He worries about what he believes will be inevitably lower-quality fare, dubbing it another phase of the cultural dumbing-down he sees throughout the entertainment industry.

While there is little question that the scope of the story in a sequel is smaller ("It's made for the small screen, after all," Caruba says), sequels do provide jobs for about twice as many animators and voices as a theatrical release because they are done in half the time. Disney alone has 1,000 employees just at work on sequels.

Jason Marsden provides the voice for Kovu, a new villain in the "Lion King" sequel. "Feature slates are all backed up right now," the actor says. The STV "Lion King" sequel "is as good as a feature, and I can turn the work around quickly." As if to answer a lingering question, he adds, "I'm proud to be in this film."

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