This was inspired by Matt Moore’s ongoing HorrorHound magazine column, “Video Invasion”. I highly recommend getting a subscription to this magazine if you are a serious horror fan.
As it stands, this article is heavily copied from Wikipedia, and has only a bare minimum of independent research. I intend to fix this at a later time… I think it would be best to have the stories of these companies overlap to create a more integrated view of the distribution process…
Media Home Entertainment 1978-1993
Media Home Entertainment was a home video company headquartered in Culver City, California, originally established in 1978 by filmmaker Charles Band.
The company would eventually become one of the largest independent video distributors in the U.S., relying on acquired films, television programs, and children’s programs to establish a library of product. Some releases from the company included the original Halloween, the majority of the Peanuts specials (up to 1984), The Adventures of the Wilderness Family, Enemies, A Love Story, I Come in Peace, some films from the Cannon Films library, and all of the Nightmare on Elm Street films in the 1980s.
In 1984, Media Home Entertainment was bought by Heron Communications Inc., a subsidiary of Gerald Ronson’s Heron International. However, by late 1990, Media Home Entertainment had began downsizing its staff and selling off its video assets in the wake of Ronson’s involvement in the Guinness share-trading fraud in Great Britain. Ronson became known in the UK as one of the “Guinness Four” for his involvement in the scandal, along with Ernest Saunders and occasional business associates Jack Lyons and Anthony Parnes. Ronson was convicted in August 1990 of one charge of conspiracy, two of false accounting, and one of theft, and was fined £5 million and given a one-year jail sentence, of which he served six months. In 2000, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the 1990 trial had been unfair because there had been a improper collusion between the DTI inspectors and the prosecuting authorities.
Media Home Entertainment ceased final operations in 1993. At that time, its final titles being prepared for video release were acquired by and subsequently distributed by Fox Video (also some by CBS/FOX Video) (now 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment). Videos from the Media Home Entertainment library were also distributed overseas in the United Kingdom and Australia & New Zealand by VPD (Video Program Distributors) and Video Classics respectively. Some releases by Media Home Entertainment and its associated sublabels were distributed in Canada by Astral Video, a now-defunct subsidiary of the present-day Astral Media.
The company’s remaining library of older titles were sold off as well and are now distributed by a number of home video companies, including Fox, New Line Home Entertainment, MGM Home Entertainment, or Anchor Bay Entertainment (and some Media releases from 1987-1993 were released under the former Video Treasures name). The Peanuts television specials were later distributed by Paramount Home Entertainment from 1994-2007, and in 2008 were licensed for distribution by Warner Bros. Home Video.
Media Home Entertainment also distributed video product under three additional labels — The Nostalgia Merchant (very old or classic films), Hi-Tops Video (children’s videos), and Fox Hills Video (special-interest videos). The “Fox Hills” name was derived from a geographical location near the company’s headquarters at 5700 Buckingham Parkway in Culver City. The Nostalgia Merchant line is still around, and one can buy its DVDs on its website.
Wizard Video 1981-1986
Created by Charles Band, the founder of VHS giant Media Home Entertainment, the company began around 1981 and distributed a wide variety of cult films. These including many Italian horror classics and sex comedies, but they’re most successful releases were those licensed from New Line Cinema. Several of these titles included the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos. Immediately after its success with it’s new lineup (most of that success is attributed to TCM), Band thought he could turn an extra profit by taking advantage of the popularity of the Atari System. He released two Atari games, Halloween, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The games were widely criticized for their violence and would find little profit, as they were hidden behind store counters. Projects for future games such as Flesh Gordon were halted.
Around 1984, they began to release their movie titles in the big box format, about the same time Continental Video began doing it. With the success of the new display box, they would go back into their archives and redistribute films they had previously released in the slipcase into the new big boxes. Films such as “I Spit on Your Grave” and “The Boogey Man” were given the big box treatment. Other films such as “The Harrad Experiment” and “Astro Zombies” were even renamed specifically for their new releases.
Wizard Video began to decline around 1986, when the quality of their big boxes diminished (as with Dreamaniac and Headless Eyes). They would eventually fall back to their roots by distributing in slipcases as with Psychos in Love, Mutant Hunt, and Robot Holocaust. Wizard Video wouldn’t resurface until it took a stab at the new digital age with a DVD release of Skinned Alive, and then several years later, the Intruder.
Their trademarks are their provocative artwork and big box releases. Each Wizard Video release has a unique catalog number on it’s spine. Although their most common format was VHS, they would dabble in others. They had released titles across 5 formats: VHS, Beta, CED, Laserdisc and Atari Games. Wizard was also associated with Cult Video and Force Video.
Paragon Video Productions 1981-1985
Las Vegas-based Paragon was started in the summer of 1981. They had plenty of licenses before they even started printing, and one of their first titles was Lucio Fulci’s “City of the Living Dead”, which probably didn’t hurt. Why did they collapse so early? Some speculate that it was the lack of sensational box artwork, which was often the tipping point between renting and not renting.
Continental Video 1981-1987
Continental debuted in 1981 with a wide range of genres: westerns, dramas, comedies, cartoons, etc.
Vestron Video 1981-1991
Vestron was founded in 1981 by Austin O. Furst, an executive at HBO, who was hired to dismantle some assets of Time-Life: its theatrical, television, and home video divisions. Although he had no problem selling off the former two assets, Furst was having a hard time selling off the latter, and eventually decided to keep and rename the video division. Furst’s daughter suggested “Vestron”, named after the Roman goddess Vesta and “Tron”, which means “instrument” in Greek.
The company held on to its Time-Life Video library, and was also responsible for releases on VHS videocassette of mostly B movies and films from Cannon Films’ library. In later years, the company began to shift towards mainstream films, including films released through their Vestron Pictures subsidiary, most notably Dirty Dancing. The company was the first company to release National Geographic videos in the late 1980s, and was the first to market with a pro wrestling video, “Pro Wrestling Illustrated Presents Lords of the Ring”.
Vestron went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1985 with what was at the time a large market cap IPO of $440MM, which was oversubscribed. The company enjoyed success for several years, at one point exceeding 10% of the US video movie market. At its high point sales approximated $350MM annually, and the company sold video movies in over 30 countries either directly or through sub licensing agreements. This was basically a rights business, built by some insightful people who appreciated the video (VCR) rights to films before the major studios did. Eventually the major studios smartened up, and film product became increasingly harder for Vestron to acquire. Also, independent producers increased the price of those available.
The company started to produce its own films around 1986 (Dirty Dancing, Earth Girls Are Easy, Blue Steel), but when the market’s preferences matured and shifted from watching almost any film to just watching “A” titles, for which the majors had a stronghold, the company was committed already with a pipeline of about 20 “B” to low “A” projects. Financing for the company fell through and it eventually filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, and was bought out on January 11, 1991 by Los Angeles-based LIVE Entertainment, a home video and music company, for $27.3 million. LIVE acquired Vestron’s extensive (3,000 plus) film library. (LIVE later changed their name to he more familiar Artisan Entertainment.)
Their international divisions were the second largest just after Warner Brothers. It had many direct theatrical, video and TV distribution offices all around the world in major markets and owned a video manufacturing plant in the Netherlands to supply European markets. Today, most of the holdings of Vestron Video are now owned by Lionsgate.
Unicorn Video 1982-present
Unicorn started out distributing foreign films, such as those of Jess Franco, before moving to underground American films. They were possibly the first company to present Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy to the American public, with titles like “Fury of the Wolfman”. Unicorn knew the importance of grabbing the renter’s attention ,and often creating their own box art rather than relying on the film’s theatrical image. If the artwork was better, more people would impulsively rent the film. Unicorn stayed strong by releasing blaxploitation films and 1970s martial arts films featuring Bruce Lee.
Believe it or not, Unicorn Video still operates today, often under the radar.
Super Video 1983-1986
Super Video debuted in 1983, featuring Spanish horror films that were often retitled and dubbed. They were not well-received, and turned to a subdistributor. This, too, failed, and the company closed up.
Empire International Pictures 1983-1989
Empire Pictures was a small scale theatrical distribution company that was formed in 1983 by Charles Band.
The company produced a number of low-budget horror and fantasy features including “Trancers” and “The Dungeonmaster”. It is perhaps best known for “Re-Animator” and “Ghoulies” which were major box office hits for the company in 1985. Other Empire Pictures included “From Beyond”, “Dolls”, “Troll”, “Crawlspace” and “Robot Jox”. Empire Pictures began to collapse in 1989 due to financial problems.
The studio was originally situated in Rome, Italy and as of today, MGM is the current owner of a majority of the Empire Pictures library. After Empire folded, Charles Band formed another company, Full Moon Entertainment, which also specializes in horror/fantasy genre films.
Empire Pictures is not to be confused with the American film distribution company of the same name, which was established in 2000 and focuses on releasing art-house and foreign films.
Prism Entertainment 1983-1995
California-based Prism was born in 1983, and started out strong by buying up every little-known or unknown title it could get its hands on. This way, it could acquire a large catalog for little capital, and gain more shelf space in the video stores quickly. Prism also catered to video stores better than many distributors by offering direct shipping. They gained strength when they partnered with Marvel Comics — now cartoons such as The Incredible Hulk were only available through Prism, and with Marvel’s big pockets, they were able to produce videotapes on a grander scale, dropping the price and allowing customers to own their own copies, rather than rent.
The Marvel Comics Video Library, released by Prism Entertainment, was a series of VHS tapes that featured episodes from animated series based on Marvel Comics characters. A total of 24 tapes were released and included episodes from Spider-Man (1967), Spider-Man (1981), The Marvel Superheroes, Fantastic Four (1978), The Incredible Hulk (1982) and Spider-Woman. Each tape ran for approximately 60 minutes, and included 2 full episodes. The first episode could be from any of the series, but the second episode was always from the 1981 or 1967 Spider-Man series. The volumes were released in a numerical sequence, and each one featured a title and cover relating to a character that appears in one or both of the episodes on the tape. Most covers included the title of one of the episodes as well. The videos came in a slightly over-sized case with artwork from Marvel Comics on the outside, complete with episode descriptions on the back. Characters featured included heroes such as Spider-Man, Hulk, Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man as well as villains such as Dr. Doom, the Vulture, Green Goblin, Magneto. The intent was to keep going with the series until every available episode of the various series were released on tape. However, Prism canceled the arrangement after two cycles were released, one with the hero’s names and one with a villain’s name.
In the early 1990s, Prism partnered with Paramount. This allowed Prism the ability to get more funding and better distribution, but also lead to their downfall when they were devoured entirely by the much larger company. This worked out well for consumers, though, as the distribution rights did not die with the company, but instead went to Paramount. Many VHS titles still have not been released on DVD because the distributors are defunct, but the Prism films have by and large done just fine.
Regal Video 1984-1987
Although the early “Video Boom” had already passed, New York-based Regal came on to the scene in 1984 with a handful of original titles. They survived by stressing that their titles could only be available from them. This was likely true of most companies, but the ploy worked. They had such a tight grip on their titles, in fact, that they were nearly impossible to get after the company went under. Their weakness was having too few titles (roughly 35) and being overshadowed by Vestron and Media, who had a much larger share of the pie. Regal officially gave up in 1987, though some of their films were still available for purchase as late as 1990.
Trimark Pictures 1985-2000
Trimark Pictures Inc., was a production company formed by Mark Amin in 1985 and was the parent company of Trimark Holdings Inc. (formerly Vidmark Entertainment), Trimark Pictures specialized as a small studio, producing and distributing theatrical, independent, television and home video motion pictures.
Vidmark Entertainment first became involved with motion picture production in 1988, when its founders and investors provided financing for the feature Demonwarp. Demonwarp was produced by Richard L. Albert through his advertising company Design Projects, Inc., which was Vidmark’s and many other home video and independent film distributors’ advertising company. Demonwarp was shot on 35mm film, and starred George Kennedy, but only cost $250,000 to make. Coming from a marketing background, producer Rick Albert convinced Mark Amin that if the film’s budget was limited to the minimum baseline sales that Vidmark could make with any horror film released on videocassette in the United States, then the motion picture would have to be profitable. Since the original investors in Vidmark also invested in and owned the 20/20 Video chain of stores, they could accurately project what the minimum sales would be. The projections proved true, and adding to the robust U.S. home video sales, international sales, cable and free television sales, Demonwarp earned many multiples of its original budget. Mark Amin served as executive producer, and during production of Demonwarp he decided to raise money by a public offering of Vidmark, to form Trimark.
Trimark picked up Warlock, a 1989 horror/fantasy film starring Julian Sands which was a major theatrical hit with fans of the horror genre. Trimark eventually made the sequel Warlock: The Armageddon in 1994. Trimark also saw success in other familiar horror series the studio produced and distributed. Leprechaun, released in 1993 starring a young Jennifer Aniston and Warwick Davis as the sinister leprechaun grossed over $10 million dollars during its theatrical run. One theatrical sequel and four direct to video sequels eventually followed.
Other Trimark Productions familiar to the horror genre included The Dentist, a major hit on HBO, Return of the Living Dead III and Pinocchio’s Revenge. Trimark also specialized in made-for-television features, which included the dramatic Eve’s Bayou, starring Samuel L. Jackson, which received critical acclaim. Trimark also released Stephen King’s Storm of the Century, a miniseries.
In 2000, Trimark merged with Lionsgate in which Amin became the single largest shareholder. In 2001, Mark Amin founded Sobini Films where he currently serves as the CEO.
Anchor Bay Entertainment 1985-present
Anchor Bay Entertainment can date its origins back to 1985, when Video Treasures was founded as a publisher and distributor of home video programming. Their VHS releases were well known for being sold as budget items in all three tape speeds (SP, LP and EP/SLP modes). They released films from Heron Communications (including Media Home Entertainment and Hi-Tops Video), Britt Allcroft (the Thomas the Tank Engine series), Trans World Entertainment, Regal Video, and Virgin Vision, as well as Starmaker Entertainment. Video Treasures was sold to Handleman Company in 1989, and changed its name to “Anchor Bay Entertainment” in January 1997. Anchor Bay remained part of Handleman until 2003, when it was acquired by IDT Entertainment.
On February 4, 2005, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil charges against two former employees of Anchor Bay Entertainment, a former subsidiary of Handleman Company. The SEC’s complaint, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleges that the two employees caused the company to enter into two million dollar sham transactions. Both transactions involved the purported sale of slow moving or obsolete inventory to business partners coupled with secret buy-back provisions. The inventory included worthless video boxes and sleeves and DVDs for films. Handleman subsequently restated its financial statements to correct these accounting errors.
Liberty Media, the owner of the Starz cable network, purchased IDT Entertainment from IDT Corp. in 2006 and renamed it Starz Media. In May 2007, Anchor Bay became known as Starz Home Entertainment. SHE announced on June 19, 2007 that they will be releasing high definition versions of their films exclusively in the Blu-ray format. In 2008, Starz Media re-instated the Anchor Bay Entertainment brand and all future releases will bear this name.
VEC started out re-releasing the catalog of Continental Video, which allowed it quick traction at video stores that wanted those titles that had been out of print for a few years.
Lionsgate was founded in 1995 by Frank Giustra, a Canadian investment banker hoping to capitalize on the growing film industry in his home town. The company bought a number of small production facilities and distributors, including Montreal-based Cinepix Film Productions (CFP), Trimark Pictures, Mandate Pictures and, most notably, Artisan Entertainment (which itself had formerly been LIVE Entertainment, and before that, Vestron Pictures).
They had sold off their Canadian distribution rights to Maple Pictures, founded and co-owned by two former Lionsgate executives, Brad Pelman and Laurie May.
Its first major box office success was American Psycho in 2000, which began a trend of producing and distributing films too controversial for the major American studios. Other notable films included Affliction, Gods and Monsters, Dogma, Saw and the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which became the studio’s highest grossing film.
Lionsgate plays a significant role in the co-financing and co-partnership with Relativity Media in most of the latter studio’s films released by the former (such as 2010’s Kick-Ass), with Relativity’s Rogue Pictures division and Universal Pictures (once Rogue’s parent company) as silent partners, with partial distribution overseen by Universal.
In 2007, Lionsgate bought a partial stake in independent film distribution company Roadside Attractions.
Lionsgate, along with MGM and Paramount Pictures/Viacom, is also a co-owner of Epix, a new pay TV movie channel which debuted on October 30, 2009 on Verizon FiOS IPTV systems, that will rival HBO and Showtime. Lionsgate also stated they would be starting work in music albums.
The distribution of selected recent non-in-house films for pay-per-view and on-demand are under the supervision of NBC Universal Television Distribution under Universal Pictures (Universal formally held home video and television rights to many of the early Lionsgate films), while all others are distributed for both cable and broadcast television through Debmar-Mercury, Lionsgate’s syndicated division.
Lionsgate’s vast library of movies and TV shows can be seen on digital platform Hulu.