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‘Aladdin’ Sequel With Robin Williams Goes Direct To Video

Scott Moore The Washington Post

Once upon a time, a film that arrived in video stores without the pedigree of a theatrical release was treated with the suspicion of a beggar in a royal palace.

Disney Home Video is trying to change that reputation. And the entertainment giant has a magical genie to make this wish come true.

So when the Robin Williams-powered “Aladdin and the King of Thieves” debuts Tuesday, there will be no long lines at the movie theaters. Instead - poof - it appears in thousands of video outlets, for a retail price of $24.99.

Like every Disney release, this third installment in the “Aladdin” series will be backed by the patented Disney marketing magic - in this case a campaign valued at more than $70 million, with McDonald’s and General Mills tie-ins.

“We’re going to change forever the expectation of a Disney direct-to-video release,” said Ann Daly, president of Buena Vista Home Video, North America. “In the past, video was kind of a dumping ground - it meant a film couldn’t make the cut. And it earned its image of being a place for poor-quality films.” In some cases, that is still the case. Perhaps the best example was this summer’s “Theodore Rex,” a $35-million comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg as a cop with an 8-foot dinosaur partner.

When New Line Cinema balked at investing the additional $15 million needed for theatrical distribution, “Rex” rolled over into the direct-to-video doghouse.

“No one likes to be told that their child isn’t beautiful enough for theatrical release, but that’s a fact of life,” Mitch Goldman, head of marketing and distribution for New Line Cinema, told Video Store magazine.

Beyond the millions required for theatrical release, the stakes riding on distribution decisions are enormous. Bad reviews or poor box-office totals can affect earnings from pay-per-view and video sales and rentals. On the other hand, even critical reviews - such as accompanied “Showgirls” - can boost a film’s video business.

With three-quarters of American homes having video cassette players, there’s an abundant market for videos, even less-polished productions. And two decades into the video era, studios are starting to find direct-to-video a profitable medium for first-run films, said Video Business editor Bruce Apar.

“Most people see most of their movies at home on video,” said Disney’s Daly. “The idea of seeing a brand-new movie in your home is not a new concept.”

The first “Aladdin” sequel, “The Return of Jafar” was one of the more notable direct-to-video hits. The 1993 release lacked Robin Williams and much of the big-screen polish (it was originally conceived as a three-part opener for the animated television series) but still sold more than 10 million copies. The original, however, garnered $500 million at worldwide box offices and sold more than 20 million videos.

“The Land Before Time” followed a similar script, with its two direct-to-video sequels totaling millions in sales.

Most in the business expect “Aladdin and the King of Thieves” to break from the shackles of such B-movie fodder and further the trend of quality direct-to-video releases.

“I hope this is something that continues. I hope to see a “Lion King’ sequel (on video),” said Peter Busch, vice president for video purchasing for the Musicland Group, which includes Suncoast and Sam Goody stores.

Disney is pursuing direct-to-video sequels for several reasons, Daly said. There already are more story ideas than available screens. And the studio doesn’t want the sequels to detract from the attention given theatrical blockbusters such as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Robin Williams attract attention? Not unless he’s backed by a 70-piece orchestra while doing rapid-fire Genie impersonations of Woody Allen, Walter Cronkite, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and just about every Disney icon of the past 30 years.

And he does!

It’s actually a good thing “The King of Thieves” is on video. While it doesn’t quite have the detail of the original big-screen film, the images from Disney’s 400 artists and Williams’s madcap ad libs may warrant repeated viewings.

The Arabian Nights adaptation also features Scott Weinger and Linda Larkin as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, finally set to marry after a four-year courtship; Gilbert Gottfried as the squawking parrot Iago; Frank Welker as Abu the monkey; Val Bettin in his second turn as the Sultan; and newcomers Jerry Orbach as the unscrupulous Sa’luk and John Rhys-Davies as Aladdin’s father, Cassim, the Prince of Thieves.

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