How films such as Three Men And A Little Lady and JFK defied the rental window in the UK.

Those of you who were born into the world with the internet, with DVD, with regular comic book movies in it will likely – to give fair warning – find what’s about to follow a little alien. Because it’s norm now that when a film is done with its cinema run, within three or four months, you can buy a copy if you like. Perhaps not always a physical release, but there will be a chance to ‘buy’ a version to ‘keep’ soon enough.

This, as those of us of a more advanced age can testify, was not always so.

In the days of VHS, a cinema release tended to be followed some six months later by the film being made available to rent. You could buy a brand new copy at this stage if you like, but you’d be paying the dealer price of £60-70, and your video would be in a supersized box, of the ilk where you could barely fit many of them on your shelf. The ex-rental would come along a month or two later, at a more affordable price. Choices Video was good for these, and for a tenner or so, you could buy a copy early, that had been manhandled by a mere 40 or 50 people (depending on the popularity of your local video store)

Then, if you wanted to buy a video to own? A retail version in a smaller box would arrive a further six months or so later. In the case of Terminator 2 for instance, the film arrived in cinemas in July 1991, hit video to rent in February 1992, and was released to buy in the autumn of 92.

But every now and then – outside of Disney animated moves – we’d get a treat. That a studio would sense a bit of extra cash, and skip the rental window altogether. The film industry hated them doing this, as rental stores were adamant it cost them business. But whilst it was fairly regular in the US for big films to skip the rental stage, it was a novelty and a half in Britain.

What was interesting were the titles chosen.

The aforementioned Disney animated hits led the charge, and sold by the crate. Even a film not necessarily that well liked – Fantasia – was marketed to the nth degree by Disney to make it at one stage the biggest selling video of all time.

But Disney did test the water with some straight to buy live action releases. It had, for instance, much success with Pretty Woman, that skipped the rental window in Britain. Which made the studio feel like testing the water with comedy sequel Three Men And A Little Lady. The film, which sold for £12.99, was offered with a T-shirt you could write a cheque for about 40p to get through the post. It had hardly set the box office alight, but the video release was enough of a novelty that people snapped it up.

It was Warner Bros that seized the initiative, though. A trio of its higher profile hits of the early 1990s – JFK, Batman Returns and Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves – duly went straight to buy. In the case of Robin Hood, it was a spectacular success too. Warner Bros would put Batman Forever straight out to buy a few years later, post its theatrical run.

Columbia jumped aboard the bandwagon with the video release of Steven Spielberg’s Hook, whilst Fox would opt to bypass the rental window in the UK when it came to James Cameron’s Titanic later in the decade.

But in terms of high profile straight to buy video releases in the UK, there weren’t – animated films aside – that many other examples.

It’s why when DVD was launched in Britain that there was such a push in the UK industry to retain the rental window. Whilst most US films went straight to buy when DVD was ushered in (although not before a rival format was dispensed with, that sought to retain some form of rental window), that wasn’t the culture in Britain. That big successes frequently bypassed rental in the States, but not so much in the UK.

Gradually, the spectacular rise of DVD eroded the rental window, and the fight to hold some form of rental market was lost within a year or two. But the irony is that after years of film fans wanted to get to buy their films earlier, that the rental model is back with a vengeance. That through the likes of iTunes and Sky, more and more of us are ‘renting’ a film for 48 hours again, years after consumer demand went the other way.

If you feel like you missed out though on the good old days, you can still pick up Three Men And A Little Lady videos on eBay. Suspect the T-shirt offer has long since been redeemed though…

Lead image: eBay

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