After a deluge of utterly depressing news revolving around the state of the nation and this farce of a presidential election, it was nice to get some good news of sort. Naturally, it happens to be news that has nothing to do with politics.
On August 1, 2016, Lionsgate Entertainment announced the pending revival of the classic 1980s independent home video label Vestron Video as a specialty boutique sublabel. Staying true to the roots of Vestron, the revived label will issue DVDs and Blu-Rays of independent movies, many of them B-level and in the horror genre.
Undoubtedly many younger readers will not be familiar with Vestron Video and the tremendous impact it had on the home video industry back in the day. So, as Phoenix’s foremost home video historian, here’s a two-part look back at the rise and fall of one of the top independent video labels of the 1980s home video boom.
The year is 1981, when home video was still in infancy. Although the major studios had dipped their toes into the home video pool, they still didn’t see home video as a viable permanent revenue source. They viewed it as a passing fad, worthy to indulge in at the moment and not much longer. The proof was often found in those early video transfers for which the studios provided video technicians with murky, battered and filthy 16mm prints instead of prime 35mm film elements.
With major studio apathy, it was a market just ripe for a viable independent video company to make a serious mark.
However, if the home video market was an opportunity for a viable independent, the same could no longer be said for theatrical distribution. The major studios had started making B-level movies with A-level budgets and better production value, hurting the bottom line of the major independent distributors, such as Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and the legendary AIP (soon to be rechristened Filmways Pictures) and the film division of Time-Life, Inc.
Time-Life was in dire financial straits, brought down to its’ knees by a string of very expensive flops, most recently the Paul Newman vehicle Fort Apache, the Bronx. Not only did the financial flops forcing Time-Life to cancel the release of Peter Bogdanovich’s romantic comedy They All Laughed, they decided to pull out of the movie business altogether.
Enter Austin O. Furst, Jr., a 13 year employee of Time-Life, Inc. and currently working as an executive for HBO. He was assigned the arduous task of unloading the various assets that comprised the Time-Life Films. Furst was able to quickly unload the theatrical production and distribution unit onto Twentieth Century Fox, which had stepped in to help release the last handful of Time-Life movies during the initial financial crisis. Columbia Pictures Television eagerly took Time-Life’s broadcast TV division. However, there were no takers for Time-Life’s video division or the home video rights to their library of 20+ films.
Fed up with trying to find a buyer, Furst decided to purchase the video rights to the Time-Life film library himself, negotiating a relatively cheap price from the Time-Life board of directors. Then he resigned from Time-Life/HBO and took the initial steps towards starting his own home video distribution company. His daughter came up with the name Vestron Video, a combination of the Roman goddess Vesta and tron, the Greek word for instrument.
Vestron Video debuted in February 1982. Amongst the initial batch of 51 titles released in that first year of operations included the Time-Life film library (Fort Apache the Bronx, Loving Couples), select Hollywood movies for which the video rights were up for grabs (The Cannonball Run), Canadian-made prestige films (Tribute, The Changeling), independently made B-movies (usually from the horror genre, most memorably Bloodsucking Freaks) and even a few oddball titles (Woody Allen’s What’s Up Tiger Lily and a trilogy of video game instructional tapes).
Opening these initial cassettes was a still, silent placeover onscreen logo set against a blue background.
It was nice and pleasant, but soon it would be replaced by a more exciting animated logo. Although considered primitive by today’s standards, the new logo was exciting and futuristic at once. It was most fitting for an entertainment format that seemed from the future, especially since the general public was still getting accustomed to the concept of home video.
It may be hard to fathom today, but once upon a time, video rental stores were considered Public Enemy No. 1 by the major studios. The studios already had a half-hearted position when it came to home video and once they found themselves in the video business, chose to focus exclusively on sales. In the days before videotapes were attractively priced to sell, pre-recorded tapes could cost as much as $100 each. If it was a 2-tape set, that cost could rise as high as $179. I still recall my parents blanching at the $139 price tag of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, inspiring them to wait until both played on TV again instead of purchasing them.
Video rental was often the salvation of those of us who couldn’t afford to build a home video library just yet.
Furst and company president Jon Peisinger (himself a fellow Time-Life/HBO refugee) saw an opening for Vestron. They wisely cooperated with video rental outlets, choosing to foster a mutually beneficial working agreement that paid off dividends. Vestron Video was the first home video label to focus on heavy advertising and displays in video stores. I can still remember the many cardboard cutouts, display cases and vivid posters lining the walls and floors of my local video store.
It soon became clear that Vestron Video would need more product in order for the company to grow. A golden opportunity arose in 1982 as Orion Pictures was in the middle of a contentious divorce from then-partner Warner Bros. Of the initial 25 films released since the partnership’s start in 1979, only a third had been profitable and only two (Blake Edwards’ 10 and Harold Ramis’ Caddyshack) were monster hits. WB had been especially upset that Orion stupidly passed on financing a pair of Steven Spielberg blockbusters: Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. Had those hits been in the house of Warners, Orion’s mounting debt likely would have been forgiven.
Needing a viable theatrical distribution company, Orion had attempted to purchase Allied Artists but failed to offer an attractive enough price to close the deal. Inquiries into purchasing Avco Embassy met with laughter the likes of which would have made Mel Brooks and Woody Allen jealous. Filmways Pictures, formed from the remnants of AIP, was suffering from a string of box office duds and inspired by the recent sale of United Artists to MGM, decided to sell. Orion had their own distribution at last. However, that didn’t extend to home video just yet.
Vestron Video made Orion an offer they couldn’t refuse. Vestron promptly snapped up the video rights to all but one 1983 Orion release (Warner Bros. refused to relinquish all ancillary rights to Woody Allen’s comedy Zelig in the divorce), all but a handful of Orion’s 1984 releases (Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club, of which the video rights were pre-sold to Embassy Home Entertainment, was one; Amadeus was another) and a large chunk of their 1985 releases.
Under the deal, Vestron also acquired the rights to whatever AIP library titles that weren’t cherrypicked by Warner Home Video or sold off to other independent video labels. This included George Miller’s first Mad Max film (rushed onto video in 1983 to capitalize on the box office success of The Road Warrior- no one could accuse Furst of not taking advantage of a blessing in disguise), a large chunk of Roger Corman’s AIP output, including two of his highly regarded Edgar Allan Poe film adaptations and the controversial LSD drama The Trip, the controversial vigilante drama Rolling Thunder (20th Century Fox sold the film off to AIP over concerns about the harsh violence contained within the film) and the tongue-in-cheek horror satire Squirm.
Vestron also finagled laserdisc rights to four high-profile Filmways releases that Warner Home Video only held videocassette rights to: Brian De Palma’s electrifying thrillers Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981), Arthur Penn’s highly emotional Four Friends (1981) and the popular Charles Bronson actioner Death Wish II (1981).
The Orion film library would provide Vestron with enough product to sustain itself for at least the next three years. This allowed them to pursue other profitable deals.
Speaking of Corman, he managed to find a video home through Vestron for an acclaimed drama that Warner Home Video had passed on releasing on tape and laserdisc: the emotionally arresting 1984 Jamie Lee Curtis star vehicle Love Letters. Warner likely rued the day they passed on the film as it became a colossal and very profitable release for Vestron.
When Polygram decided to pull out of the movie business and a deal with Universal Pictures in 1984, they sold the home video rights to An American Werewolf in London and Endless Love to Vestron, which re-released both on tape and laserdisc in 1985. Both remained highly profitable for Vestron and the various successor companies formed from the rubble until Universal reclaimed all rights to both films in 2001.
In 1984, Vestron Video was also the first home video label to release a pair of pro wrestling videos, Lords of the Ring and Ringmasters: The Great American Bash. This pre-dated Vince McMahon’s Coliseum Video label by almost a year.
As the company kept growing, Vestron branched out with several specialty sublabels. Having scored a success with such animated titles as Ziggy’s Gift and Smurfs and the Magic Flute, not to mention having secured video rights to the Terrytoons cartoon library, Vestron launched Children’s Video Library in 1983. These releases were shockingly cheap for the era, often costing no more than $35 per title, which was a big deal back then.
When the music video scene exploded in 1983-84, Vestron created Vestron Music Video. It was through this sub-label that saw the release of the first million-selling music video tape of all time: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It sold for $30 during a time when most tapes of its’ kind sold for twice that.
Lightning Video was launched in 1984 as an outlet for the growing library of B-movies, schlock features, major studio castoffs and whatever AIP/Orion product hadn’t already been issued on the parent label. It also wound up serving as US distributor to two independent video labels that had experienced financial hassles: VidAmerica (which handled the RKO film library) and Wizard Video (mostly schlock and foreign horror flicks).
By 1985, the decision was made to take the company public on the stock exchange. It seemed as if Vestron couldn’t lose. Little did they know.