16 Classic Video Labels, and What Happened to Them

CIC Video? Medusa? Odyssey? Thorn EMI? We track down the classic video companies of yesterday…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The modern DVD and Blu-ray market? Well, it’s all so corporate isn’t it? No slight on the releases, or the companies involved, but I don’t think anyone gets a frission of excitement when they see a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment logo on a box, in the way they used to when the Medusa logo popped up. And whilst there are firms such as Arrow and Eureka keeping the flag of quirky film companies flying, there are still a few names consigned to the VHS recycle bin, whose story is in danger of being lost. Hence, this article…

Tartan Video

For a long time, along with Artificial Eye, Tartan Video was one of the most prominent releases of world cinema in the UK. In the 1990s in particular, its commitment to releasing a breadth of titles from around the world was appreciated. These were the days before DVD and internet shopping broadened the accessibility of world cinema. Furthermore, it regularly did battle with the BBFC to try and get films released in tact. Tartan was an active champion of the likes of Audition and Oldboy in the UK.

Tartan struggled though as the 2000s wore on, and things came to a head one day in the summer of 2008 when staff turned up at the firm’s London office to find the doors locked. Tartan had gone into administration.

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In the resultant sale of assets, Palisades Media Group picked up the name and the library of films, and Palisades Tartan was born. The golden era of Tartan Video was, however, over.

Revolver

For just over 15 years, Revolver Entertainment was distributing films in the UK. It kicked off with home video releases, and then gradually moved onto theatrical work. But its foundations remained in the home entertainment market. Titles released under the Revolver name were rarely high profile, but this was a label that would give exposure to smaller titles, of mixed quality.

Unfortunately, following layoffs at the start of 2013, the UK arm of the Revolver group hit significant problems, finally entering administration in April of that year. The Revolver name continues in the US, but it’s lost from UK shop shelves.

Cinema Club

See VCI.

First Independent

A briefly prominent name in the 1990s, and a successor to the Vestron Video name, First Independent released titles such as Misery in the UK on video. It also put out New Line Cinema titles up until the mid-1990s.

However, First Independent was sold to Columbia TriStar Home Video in the mid-1990s, and whilst the name continued for a while, it was soon shut down. The last release bearing the First Independent moniker was released in 1999, before off the name went to the great video graveyard.

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Polygram

Toward the end of the 1990s, Polygram was an entertainment force to be reckoned with. Its music operations were sizeable, it had a growing library of successful films, and videos such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Spice World were big sellers. Those limited edition Spice Girl tins for the Spice World movie? You can thank Polygram for those in an era where the Steelbook was a glint in video distributors’ eye. Polygram was also distributing Coen brothers movies, stand-up comedy, classic movies – and the European giant (founded by Siemens and Philips initially) attracted the interest of Seagram as a consequence.

Seagram owned the group that also featured Universal Pictures, and as such, after purchasing the company in 1998, it merged its operations into Universal. Seagram was then sold quickly to Vivendi, and Polygram Filmed Entertainment, along with its video arm, became Universal entities instead. This would have knock-on effects for CIC Video, who we’re coming to shortly.

The Polygram name has now been revived as part of the Universal Music empire, but its film days are behind it.

Optimum

Springing to life in 1999, Optimum Releasing oversaw the UK distribution of theatrical releases, DVDs, Blu-rays, back catalogue titles and world cinema releases. It grew quickly too, releasing hundreds of films between its formation and 2011.

Optimum was picked up by StudioCanal in 2006, though, yet it kept its name for a good few years after that. The switch finally came in 2011, when Optimum Releasing was no more, and titles now come with StudioCanal branding instead. Still plenty of them though.

Medusa

The excellent VivaVHS site does far more credit to the work of Medusa Home Video than I ever could, right here. Medusa became a very notable and much loved label for genre fans, with its releases rarely troubling the inside of a cinema. But as niche labels often did in the video days in particular, it gave exposure to films that otherwise would have been very, very tricky to find. Horror, and films with Roman numerals in the title, became key fodder. Naked female flesh seemed to regularly find its way to its video covers as well.

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But in the midst of that, Medusa put out movies such as Roland Emmerich’s debut, Moon 44, the Michael Caine-headlined A Shock to the System, and Re-Animator 2. Half the films on its books should have come with a six-pack of beer and a pizza thrown in, and there’s no shame in that.

Exactly what happened to the Medusa name isn’t clear – although clues lie in Medusa Home Entertainment being acquired by Warner Bros Italy in November 2012. It had long gone from the UK by then.

CIC Video

For many years, Paramount and Universal opted to theatrically release their movies through United International Pictures – UIP – at a time when overseas box office was growing in importance to Hollywood majors. UIP came about in 1981, and was responsible for putting out Paramount and Universal films (and, at one stage, DreamWorks and MGM movies too) in many countries outside of the US, the UK included.

In recent times, Universal and Paramount – in part due to both making far fewer movies – have taken over international distribution more directly (Paramount has effectively taken over UIP’s work in the UK). That said, Paramount shuttered its UK home DVD and Blu-ray arm a year or two back, opting to put its releases through Universal.

And this is a callback to roughly how it used to be. For even before UIP, Paramount and Universal released their videos through CIC Video in the UK. This stood for Cinema International Corporation (that would effectively become UIP), and it also put out videos from Nickelodeon and DreamWorks too over time.

The end came quickly, though, when Universal bought Polygram at the end of the 1990s. As such, it picked up an extensive video operation, and rejigged that to cover its output. CIC Video thus disappeared, and Paramount Home Entertainment rose out of its ashes.

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Koch

Koch, a company known more for distribution of computer software, had a brief flirtation with movies a few years back, announcing plans in 2013 to release up to 25 films in cinemas a year. This followed some early success in DVD distribution.

But in 2015 it did an about turn. By this stage it had gambled on some interesting movies – Cheap Thrills, Hector and The Search For Happiness, Arbitrage – but none had broken through. It quietly exited the film market, focusing again on videogame work instead.

A Den Of Geek favorite, Bill, got caught in the midst of this. The comedy was set for release by Koch, but was left seeking a new distributor just as the final cut was being locked. Vertigo picked the movie up in the UK in the end, and Universal took home release rights. Koch continues to do business in the land of games.

Contender

Between 1995 and 2007, Contender grew to become a sizeable distributor of TV shows in particular on DVD in the UK. It’s still going too, but like many names on this list, it was snapped up and is now part of a greater corporate entity. In this case, the entity is Entertainment One, that bought Contender in 2007 as part of a 13 month shopping spree that saw it snap up four companies. It was swiftly amalgamated into the Entertainment One group, and the name ceased to be in 2007.

Virgin Video

Virgin Video didn’t put out too many releases in the UK, but it did peddle a few horror films and music videos. For many, its most famous release was the sell-through UK release of RoboCop, notable for having over half an hour of adverts before you got to the main feature itself. That and it was a perennial feature of Virgin Megastore sales. I barely know anyone who paid more than £4.99 for a RoboCop video, even when they’d worn the first copy out from winding past the commercials. The name was eventually phased out, but the Virgin name – as you probably are only too aware – continues…

Odyssey

Ah, the era of the Odyssey True Story. A video rental store wasn’t complete without a shelf of these, the VHS release of the dramas that filled the afternoon schedules – and this was before we got multiple ITV channels.

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Thing is, whereas many famous labels have fallen, Odyssey keeps going, seamlessly crossing technical rivers to keep peddling its heartbreaking real-life tales. That said, its current slate is very Royal-centric. If you’re trying to find a copy of William And Kate: A Year On, there’s no better place to go…

Thorn EMI

Thorn EMI was a video label a long, long way ahead of many of its competitors, coming into existence in 1977. It took advantage of the initial boom in VHS rentals, inking deals with Orion and New Line. Titles put out under the Thorn EMI label included The Terminator, All Of Me, First Blood, The Evil Dead, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. But by the end of 1986, the last video with Thorn EMI’s logo on the box was released.

So what happened? Well, Thorn EMI merged with HBO in 1984, and Thorn EMI/HBO Video was born. Then, the library and Thorn EMI label was bought by Cannon in 1987. The guts still are found somewhere in the HBO asset register, I suspect. But you’ll have to do a lot of hunting to find them.

Guild

Guild Home Video was up and running from the late 1970s, one of the earliest distributors of videos to ever launch in the UK. Rising to prominence by distributing the movies of Cannon, Lorimar and such like (and how 80s are those names?), Guild started to release videos to buy in 1986.

But it was a deal made in 1988 when Guild really came to prominence for many of us. It inked a deal with Carolco Pictures, and as such, it was distributing the likes of Total Recall, Terminator 2, and Cliffhanger in the UK. It also put out Dances with Wolves around the same time, an Orion picture, and the company would ultimately merge with Pathe in 1996, before the Guild name was consigned to the video history books in 1998. Pathe, however, lives on.

VCI

At one stage, VCI – Video Collection International – was one of the biggest video labels in the UK, until its subsequent merger with 2 Entertain (that you can read about below). VCI snapped up lots of Channel 4 titles, as well as sports releases.

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In fact, it had lots of tentacles. VCI was behind the Cinema Club label, for instance, licensing movies from Columbia amongst others to feature on it. Other VCI labels included Channel 4 Video, Thames Video and ITV DVD.

VCI was bought up by the Kingfisher Group in 1999, and would soon become a full part of the Woolworths empire. Which would, inevitably, mark its decline.

There is still a VCI operating in the UK, but this is the British arm of an American company, that’s unrelated to the VCI we’re talking about here.

2 Entertain

There was a period in the 1990s when the best-selling video label in the UK was 2 Entertain. It was brought about by the merger of BBC Video and VCI in 2004, and as a result, it was straight away responsible for the video, then disc releases, of all BBC shows. On top of that, VCI was no slouch either (read more about them above).

2 Entertain was threatened for a while though when Woolworths hit the skids in 2008, given that Woolworths was behind VCI. BBC Worldwide thus bought out Woolworths’ share in the operation, and 2 Entertain became a BBC operation.

It’s still just about going too, but its website is gone, and the name has been all-but-retired. BBC releases now go out under the name BBC DVD, whilst the occasional non-BBC title has the 2 Entertain name. But the BBC itself has reduced the number of physical disc releases it puts out.