Continuing our occasional series charting the history of vintage VHS (and Betamax) promotional brochures.
Back in the golden age of British pre-cert video, there was a definite split between the indies – a scrappy bunch of entrepreneurs/opportunists cashing in on the home video gold rush with a motley collection of movies old and new, classic and obscure, wholesome and outrageous – and the majors, labels set up by ‘respectable’ film distributors to release their catalogue of titles. This sense of separation was encouraged by the latter, keen to distance themselves from the excesses of the more renegade indies, though in the end, it didn’t help them at all – the police were not the most film literate as they swept up anything vaguely ‘nasty’ from local video shops and the big boys like Thorn EMI, Warner Home Video and others were as almost as likely to find their titles seized by the plod. Nevertheless, the whole process of video censorship was actively encouraged by the major labels who were not only genuinely affronted by the presence of films released by grubby sex ‘n’ violence merchants sitting alongside their titles (often claiming that the wild-west nature of the video industry was putting off the public, despite the public quite clearly showing a healthy appetite for such material) but also were keen to secure as much of a monopoly as they could. Fewer copies of The Driller Killer and Cannibal Holocaust meant more shelf space for their own films.
Of course, the reason why †he indies had so much success to begin with was because major distributors looked at home video with a great deal of suspicion for several years, some refusing to release their big titles because they thought it would impact theatrical box office (even as cinema attendance in the UK was plummeting anyway) and others unable to decide if retail or rental was the future. Warner Home Video famously began by expressly forbidding shops from renting their releases – they were strictly for sale only at £40 a tape. Then, they reversed course and became rental only – shops had to lease films that they would then rent to their members. Meanwhile, the smaller labels simply sold tapes to high street shops at wholesale prices and let them do what they wanted.
This Summer 1983 catalogue from RCA Columbia is a great example of how the major studios struggled to quite come to terms with the market. The label offered two strands – rental only and the ‘Silver Series’ that was available to buy or rent. Fair enough, you might think if the former was restricted to their latest productions. But as you’ll see looking at this catalogue, there seemed no real difference between the two strands – both were dominated by older movies and while the rental only section did feature some bigger budget, bigger hit movies, it was hardly consistent – especially as many of these films had already been shown on TV by this time. And don’t think that ‘available to buy’ meant ‘affordable’ in any way – sell-thru video was still some years away and these movies would still have been beyond the price that most people would consider paying – £30 or so a tape.
Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating slice of home video history, one that shows just how random even the major label catalogues were – and how, for all their moral superiority, they were not exactly opposed to releasing soft porn and controversial horror movies like Happy Birthday to Me and The Confessional Murders (House of Mortal Sin) and soon-to-be-censored titles like Taxi Driver.
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