When Sam Raimi’s debut feature, The Evil Dead, was released in UK cinemas, it was part-responsible for kicking off a now-familiar battle over theatrical exclusivity windows.
Long before the animated sequel Trolls World Tour inadvertently ignited a battle of words between the AMC chain of multiplexes in the US and Universal Pictures, the argument over how long a film should be exclusive to cinemas for had long been raging.
In the case of the Trolls sequel, in the aftermath of Universal deciding to bypass (closed) cinemas and send the film straight to premium video on demand, the studio indicated that it would look to do the same for other titles (it’s done so most recently with Judd Apatow’s The King Of Staten Island). This in turn led AMC to suggest it would boycott Universal’s output, and blah blah blah. You probably know the story from there.
Cinema chains have long been cagey though about anything that damages the theatrical window, and in the UK, it’s pretty much a given that a big film will now have 13 weeks before it’s allowed on home formats. For smaller releases, a policy has evolved whereby films get a small theatrical release and a day and date home formats outing. There’s still unease in some quarters about that.
Yet the first film to properly set this argument off? That’d be Sam Raimi’s debut movie, 1981’s The Evil Dead.
The film had been snapped up for UK distribution by the legendary company Palace Pictures, a firm that soared and burned in the 1980s and early 1990s. But it was a company that saw potential in the home video market in the UK in its infancy, and was quick to take advantage of the-then emerging VHS format.
Palace scored an enormous hit with the movie too when it released it in the UK in 1982, by following the old adage of sometimes it’s best to apologise later, rather than ask permission before. The firm was staffed by people outside of the film industry, and thus it oftentimes wasn’t even that aware of the rules of the game, even if it wasn’t that inclined to follow them anyway. Although as we’re about to discover, it was happy to play the naivete card when it needed.
As such, after it picked up the rights to bring The Evil Dead to Britain, Palace then decided it was going to release the film on VHS and in cinemas at the exact same time. As Palace co-founder Stephen Woolley explained in Geoffrey McNab’s book Stairways To Heaven, “it wasn’t a debate. We didn’t tell anybody, we didn’t ask anybody, we just did it”. As such, the film went into video stores at £50 a pop (the standard price for a rental tape at the time) and onto around 50 cinema screens too.
The thinking was inverse of the convention that would follow. Palace reckoned that the video release would spur on conversations that’d in turn lead to people seeking the movie out at their local cinema. That the film’s home release was fuel for its theatrical outing, where it was believed the money was. Still, Palace was open to the idea too that it might help shift a few more copies on tape too. What happened though was that the movie became one of the very first to utterly explode (metaphorically) on VHS, earning the then-infant Palace Pictures £2.5m in sales. Nobody really saw it coming, not least a UK cinema industry that wasn’t best pleased.
In fact, going back to McNab’s book, he reports an exchange between another Palace founder Nik Powell and the chief booker at the time for Odeon Cinemas, a man called Stan Fishman. Fishman was very unhappy, with Powell saying he “almost killed me” for ignoring a theatrical window. The Palace team talked its way out of it by explaining they were new to the industry, and that it was the innocence of youth. Fortunately for it, the explanation pretty much held too, although Palace’s card was marked.
But also, the cinema industry mobilised too, keen to plug any such gaps in the future. In the ensuing months back in 1982, the exhibition circuit pushed more and more for an exclusivity period, and got it. At first, there was an agreed gap of three months before a cinema release could be published on videotape. That gap would extend for a while too, oftentimes with punters having to wait a year or so for a video release. It wouldn’t be until the DVD market grew two decades that the pressure on the exclusivity window would be such that we’d see any kind of contraction.
Palace, in the aftermath of its success with The Evil Dead, would have to face the unexpected knock-on that the millions it had brought in hadn’t gone unnoticed. The next time it went shopping for smaller productions to bring to the UK, the prices had gone up and the competition was fiercer. This, in turn, sent Palace down the road of making movies itself, a story for another time, but one that would see the company soar further before its bubble eventually burst.
The Evil Dead, though, takes its place in UK film history for a number of reasons. But, as the Universal-AMC battle threatens to peter out for the time being in 2020, it’s worth noting the next time the argument over the theatrical exclusivity window comes in, that Sam Raimi and his groundbreaking low budget film drove through said window nearly 40 years ago…
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