Gone but not forgotten: Retro toons discover new life on video

Old cartoons never die, they just wait for their original core demo to grow up, suffer the pangs of nostalgia, then, presto, before you know it some enterprising vidco has released all the episodes on home video. That's the phenomenon that's...
March 1, 2001

Old cartoons never die, they just wait for their original core demo to grow up, suffer the pangs of nostalgia, then, presto, before you know it some enterprising vidco has released all the episodes on home video. That’s the phenomenon that’s playing out at video retailers these days. As Gen-X and Gen-Y settle into early adulthood, they’re seeking out the cartoons of their youth on home video, and in turn, breathing new life into properties once thought to be long dead.

Transformers, the good-bot versus bad-bot sci-fi cartoon from the mid `80s, is one such example. California-based Rhino Video, which began releasing eps of the show on video and DVD last summer, has been caught off guard by the demand for the series, based on the Hasbro toy line of the same name.

‘It’s exceeded our wildest expectations. It just kept selling, and selling, and selling,’ says Arny Schorr, senior VP of Rhino Video. All tolled, the 12 eps the company has released have sold through 500,000 to 800,000 units, according to Schorr. A DVD feature, Transformers: The Movie, reached gold sales status (100,000 units) in late November and also cracked Billboard magazine’s list of top-15 DVD sales for the same month.

Rhino’s success has not gone unnoticed. Hasbro recently awarded the company home entertainment rights to the series’ offspring, Transformers: Beast Wars, which aired in syndication from `96 to ’99, and Transformers: Beast Machines, which continues to show on Fox Kids Network, a run that will end this spring or summer. In August, Hasbro will relaunch the original Transformers property with the release of a new toy line and a show that will air three times a week on Fox Kids. Rhino plans to start releasing the entire catalog on VHS and DVD in Q3 or Q4 of this year. Schorr says the company has also talked with Hasbro about building toys based on the original series, which it would distribute as a possible on-pack premium with the videos. Fellow `80s alum G.I. Joe (based on another Hasbro toy line) also sold a respectable number of units for Rhino last year-in the 100,000 to 200,000 range, according to Schorr.

‘If we didn’t have Transformers as a yardstick, we would have been blown away by what we did on G.I. Joe,’ says Schorr.

While the retail performance of Rhino’s old toons is impressive, they’re not close to invading Lion King sales territory, and as a result, mass retailers have overlooked them. Most of its titles are sold at music and video specialty chains such as Tower Records, Blockbuster Video and Musicland. Schorr doesn’t expect the Wal-Marts and Targets to come on-board either, even as it plans to increase its classic toons releases. Included on Rhino’s sked for this year is the girl-skewing My Little Pony. Starting in June, Rhino will release two half-hour episodes of the show, and will follow up with an MLP feature later in the summer. Rhino has also picked up the catalogs to boys actioners Inhumanoids, Visionairies and Robotics, all Sunbow-produced titles that it will begin releasing as dual-ep tapes in Q2 or Q3. In August, the company plans to distribute anime cult fave Battle of the Planets. Rhino will release multiple ep tapes of BOTP, which U.S. prodco Sandy Frank Films adapted from the Japanime classic Gatchaman, about a squad of fighter pilots that protects the galaxy from ne’er-do-well alien invaders.

To give its rapidly increasing roster of classic toons a unified identity, starting next month, Rhino will begin tagging all of its old toons under a new brand it’s calling Rhinomation.

Rhino isn’t alone in mining animation’s history. When it comes to retro toon revivals, Warner Bros. Scooby-Doo is top dog. Some 17 videos of the sleuthing pooch have sold 13 million units in three and a half years, according to Ewa Martinoff, VP of marketing, family home entertainment at Warner Home Video. And while video sales have benefited from endless exposure of new Scooby shows on Cartoon Network, compilation tapes featuring many of the old eps usually sell in the one million to two million range, Martinoff says, which is comparable to what new Scooby direct-to-video titles have yielded.

‘The strength of Scooby as a video franchise is that it’s not [tied to] a four-month selling window. As long as retailers have it on their shelves, it’s a perennial reorder,’ says Martinoff. Warner will add to its Scooby catalog with Scooby Doo and the Cyber Chase, the latest DTV in the franchise due out Q4. This month Warner is re-promoting all 17 Scooby videos, including its latest release Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School. As with Scooby-Doo, many of Warner’s Hanna-Barbera cartoons, which dominated the dial and the imagination of Xers from the late `60s to early `80s, still have a strong following today, Martinoff says.

To satisfy that audience, this summer, WHV will release Cartoon Crackups, a DVD compilation of classic HB toons including Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, The Jetsons and The Flintstones. Additionally, this month, WHV will bow with two eps of Josie and the Pussycats in time for the release of Universal Pictures’ live-action theatrical remake of the `70s cult hit about a traveling all-girl rock group. Warner, which currently airs Josie on its digital net Boomerang, will release two dual-ep tapes, The Melody Memory Mix-Up and Chile Today, Hot Tamale (both US$14.95).

To be sure, reviving old toons on video is not an exclusively North American pastime. Recently, Paris-based TF1 Videos sold over 30,000 units of La Noirade, a cartoon about a neurotic black cow who struggles with existential problems that aired on TV in France in the early `80s. According to Charles Benloulou, a spokesperson at TF1 Videos, the company has tentative plans to release a second compilation of new La Noirade episodes in Q4.

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