An individual who goes by eyeh8nbc on YouTube has uploaded the contents of something I, and many of you all, have been looking for, for years...
The demo tape for the first-ever Classics release... The 1984 home video premiere of Robin Hood!
- The video case used in the program appears to be a prototype, for it has the Classics Diamond on the front cover! I wonder if it's a scan of test artwork, or if a case with that artwork actually exists!
- In the opening montage showing all the Classics, we see clips from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, two films that Disney vowed not to release on home video until 1994 and 1991 respectively. The Diamond outline here is pretty cool, actually. I wish a similar graphic had been used for the actual logo!
- The sales pitch is quite effective, going as far as calling Robin Hood an acclaimed film. It's well-known by animation historians that Robin Hood got lukewarm critical reception back when it was released in 1973, but it was a big box office smash.
- All those promo materials that were sent to stores are very nice.
- A variant of the Classics logo will an all-black background??? (at 3:28)
- The preview of the film itself in the second half of the tape is very much structured like the Pinocchio demo tape's movie preview.
- So they did make the light-up Classics sign as far back as 1984? Wow!
Well, that certainly sheds a lot of light on the promotional build-up to the first-ever Classics release!
Prior to the Classics line's launch in 1984, Disney released a handful of the animated features on home video. Two were single-story features; Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland. The other three were package features: The Three Caballeros, Fun & Fancy Free, and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
Back in the early 1980s, there wasn't really much of a Disney animated features "canon". One "definitive" canon wouldn't be determined by 1985, when The Black Cauldron was released. That would be marketed as the 25th feature. By contrast, the marketing for The Fox and the Hound said the then-new fox and dog picture was the studio's 20th film!
Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland were approved to be shown on television, by Walt Disney himself in the 1950s. Walt barely theatrically re-released the package features in their original form, they would be cut up and the different segments would either be shown on TV or attached to other movies over the years. (Music Land is a whole other story.) One exception was the 40-minute Saludos Amigos, which was double-billed with Dumbo in 1949. After Walt's passing, only The Three Caballeros was theatrically re-released, but in edited form.
Walt Disney Home Video didn't opt to put any of the other package films on video in North America at the time, which seems odd considering their stance on them at the time. Other countries got films like Make Mine Music as far back as the mid-80s. Everything else? Locked up in the proverbial vault, the only way you could go and see the likes of Pinocchio, Fantasia, Cinderella, Peter Pan, et al was at the cinema! Every 5-10 years!
The company then finally made the decision to start releasing these films on video, looking at rising sales and the slowly emerging video market. Testing things out with consumers, they marketed the then-new Cartoon Classics Limited Gold Edition wave aggressively, warning buyers that they'll disappear at a certain date. It worked, 610,000 units were sold, convincing the company to get the classics out on video and market them the same way. "When they're gone, they're gone."
So why Robin Hood? Why was that the title to launch The Classics? And pretty much the entire long-term success of Disney animated features on home media?
As we seasoned collectors know, Disney chose the 1973 film to release first because the company and the old guard - who were in the midst of seeing a regime change - thought the whole move was a gamble at this point. Either possibly make a lot of money off of the classics on a format that could still be in its infancy, or lose future theatrical re-release revenue... So instead of releasing a renowned, popular title - like Pinocchio or Sleeping Beauty - on video, they opted to put one of the "lesser", not so-well-received films out first in order to test the waters.
Sales reports, from what I found over time, were rather muddled. Disney seemed pleased, while other sources say it sold fairly well at best. Interestingly enough, Walt Disney Home Video's plan was to release The Sword in the Stone next (hence the stock number being 229, Robin Hood being 228), but that changed when the new regime - lead by Michael Eisner - want to go for the big films... Pinocchio would be the second Classics title, released in the summer of 1985. It sold over half a million units when all was said and done. The Sword in the Stone would be shown on television instead, though that eventually got released on video in the spring of 1986 as the fourth Classics title following Dumbo.