Skip to main content

How The North American Release of the Shaw Brothers Movies Was Botched

Shaw Brothers films on their own shelf in a brick-and-mortar retail store. This set up is reminiscent of how the SB bootlegs shelves were two decades earlier.

Shaw Brothers films on their own shelf in a brick-and-mortar retail store. This set up is reminiscent of how the SB bootlegs shelves were two decades earlier.

Imagine this. Back in the early 90s, the owners of the M.G.M. film library decided to no longer release the movies on home video, allow them to be shown on television, or re-release any of the movies in theaters. Gone With The Wind, gone! The Wizard of Oz, gone! All those musicals, gone! A huge chunk of motion picture history no longer available. Sure, some of the movies were released on home video prior to the library being shelved. But those films were washed out pan and scan released on VHS. No high quality DVD was ever released. A decade later, a distributing company purchases the rights to the M.G.M. library, and begins restoring the films and releasing them on DVD in their original aspect ratio for the first time. You would expect most of those DVDs to be best sellers, right?

This was the case with Shaw Brothers, China's greatest movie studio. In the 90s their films were withdrawn from worldwide distribution, and could only be seen through bootlegs of old pan and scan releases. Finally in 2002 Celestial Films began restoring and releasing the Shaw Brothers library on DVD. While Shaw Brothers may not have been as well known in America as M.G.M., it's films were sought after by fans of Asian martial arts movies. Between 1965 and 1985 Shaw Brothers Studios was responsible for releasing most of the classics of the genre. Shaws was the studio that had Lau Kar Leung and Chang Cheh under contract, two of the all time greatest directors of martial arts movies. Most of their best work was done for Shaw Brothers.

Asian films had been selling well. Thanks to the crossover success of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, as well as director John Woo, Americans became interested in Asian action movies, especially those produced in Hong Kong. If an obscure Thai film like Ong-bak can sell well on DVD in the United States, then certainly the long awaited Shaw Brothers classics should have been best sellers. Right?

The problem is that the Shaw Brothers films have not been selling well. With the exception of a couple of movies, the majority of the Shaw Brother films did little more than gather dust on store shelves. Dragon Dynasty discontinued releasing Shaw Brothers films in 2011. They still hold the rights to at least 29 more Shaw Brothers films, including Boxer From Shantung and Fist of the White Lotus. Tokyo Shock, which had been releasing the films in numbered boxes, also discontinued their releases in 2011. In 2012 Tokyo Shock announced that they would no longer be releasing any more Shaw Brothers movies. They have at least six more unreleased films, including two that had went as far as listed for pre-sale on Amazon. The only company distributing Shaw Brothers movies since then was Well Go, releasing two of the Shaws more obscure films in 2012 and four in 2014. But Well Go has announced they have no plans to distribute any more Shaw Brothers films in the future.

Shaw Brothers Studio

Shaw Brothers Studio

The Shaw family had been producing films since 1925. In 1957 they launched Shaw Brothers Studios in Hong Kong which included the massive Movietown complex at Clear Water Bay. The Shaws had gradually bought up most of the movie theaters in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China, and made sure only their movies were shown in those theaters. For the next two decades Shaw Brothers monopolized the Hong Kong movie industry, which in turn made their studio very profitable. The Shaws believed in pouring most of their profits back into their studio. The average budget of a Shaw Brother movie was more than what the Hollywood studios were spending on their films. But while they spent lavishly on their films, their actors were paid very little. Since Shaw Brothers virtually drove all but a few independent producers out of business, by the 70s they were the only Chinese movie studio around. And since actors had nowhere else to go, they begrudgingly signed long term contracts with the studio.

In 1971 Shaw Brothers offered Bruce Lee their standard contract. Instead he signed with Golden Harvest, a brand new studio formed by former Shaw Brothers executives Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho. Golden Harvest offered Bruce Lee far more money than the Shaws were offering. The three movies Lee made for Golden Harvest broke box office records, and lead to a co-production between Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers Hollywood. Enter the Dragon, starring Bruce Lee. Not only did these movies earn Golden Harvest millions, but was a boost to the theaters that Shaw Brothers did not own. Golden Harvest continued to pay top dollar for their talent, eventually leading to the studio signing Jackie Chan. This broke Shaw Brothers monopolization of the Hong Kong movie industry, and would eventually lead to the rise of other Hong Kong studios. In 1985 Shaw Brothers threw in the towel, and switched to producing television programming.

Five Fingers of Death may not have been a great film, but Americans had never seen a martial arts movie before. It became a surprise hit for Warner Brothers and lead to a surge in releases of martial arts films in America.

Five Fingers of Death may not have been a great film, but Americans had never seen a martial arts movie before. It became a surprise hit for Warner Brothers and lead to a surge in releases of martial arts films in America.

While it was a Shaw Brothers film, Five Fingers of Death ( 1972 ), that began the Kung Fu movie craze in the United States, Shaw Brothers remained obscure in North America, mainly thanks to Golden Harvest signing all the actors that had international success. In 1979 the Shaws signed an exclusive distribution deal with World Northal, who in turn were the first distributors to syndicate Asian martial arts films to American broadcast television, all edited by World Northal staffer Larry Bensky who insisted that he get screen credit for his television edits. World Northal's Black Belt Theater aired on local stations across the country, including all the Metro Media stations who aired the show during their Saturday Drive-In Theater block. The majority of the films shown on Black Belt Theater were from Shaw Brothers Studios. This lead to the Shaw Brothers movies gaining a following, as well as their contract actors becoming household names among martial arts fans. World Northal went bankrupt in 1986. Urban legend has it that a disgruntled employee facing the prospects of unemployment, grabbed the master tapes for the Black Belt Theater shows, and used them to sell his own bootleg Shaw Brothers movies on home video, which was the genesis of the Shaw Brothers bootlegs. By 1990 black market Shaw Brothers videos were best sellers in virtually every New York City store that sold discount videos, and would soon spread across the United States.


The opening logos from three weekly martial arts movie shows. World Northal's Black Belt Theater, USA Network's Kung Fu Theater, and Tribune Television's Fist of Fury Theater.

The opening logos from three weekly martial arts movie shows. World Northal's Black Belt Theater, USA Network's Kung Fu Theater, and Tribune Television's Fist of Fury Theater.

Meanwhile, there were the stations who still aired martial arts movies on Saturdays, and the USA Network who aired martial arts movies after wrestling every Sunday. World Northal may have gone bankrupt, but the television stations still retained the broadcast rights, most of which were set to expire around 1990. This was not much of a problem for Metro Media's Drive-In Theater. The network had been purchased by Rupert Murdoch and relaunched as FOX. Murdoch had an edict for Saturday afternoons. Family friendly movies only. The martial arts movies would have to go. Other independent stations continued to air Black Belt Theater until the last batch of films expired. The rights to World Northal's films languished in bankruptcy limbo, until eventually they were sold to USA Network in 1991 to be filtered into their regular martial theater. But inevitably the rights to most of the World Northal catalog reverted back to the repective Hong Kong studios. Just prior to USA losing the rights to the Shaw Brothers films in 1992, they gave them a send off in an event called Kung Fu June.

From that point on, the only way to see a Shaw Brothers movie was on a bootleg video. It did not matter that the bootlegs were now several generations old, or that they were sourced from Larry Bensky's edited for television versions. The Shaw Brothers bootlegs were best sellers. One popular video store on 34th Street restocked two full rows of shelves every Friday with Shaw Brothers movies, and by Monday were completely sold out. Meanwhile their stock in Master Arts and Saturn videos gathered dust on their shelves. Those shelves were soon replaced with a third row of Shaw Brothers, and they still sold out over the weekned. One of the initiatives of Mayor Rudolf Giuliani was to shut down all the pornographic shops in New York City. Strict new laws prevented adult video stores from operating near schools, houses of worship, or within five blocks of any other adult video stores. In order to get around these laws, many stores devoted 51% of their shelf space to standard videos, therefore declassifying them as adult video stores. These stores were looking for something cheap to fill their shelves, and along with the public domain Popeye and Casper cartoons, they began stocking bootleg Shaw Brothers films. Some stores found the Shaw Brothers films so profitable, that they gave up selling adult films and began exclusively selling martial arts films.

It was not long before everyone bought all the Shaw Brothers films the bootleggers had to offer. So they began adding to their inventory by acquiring Shaw Brothers movies released in other countries, and bootlegging them as well. Most of these were not in English, but did have English subtitles. Martial arts fans were beginning to accept subtitled films. When even the subtitled Shaw Brothers films ran out, the bootleggers began venturing into other matrtial arts films, beginning with the incredible action films of Jackie Chan, made for Golden Harvest studios. Martial arts fans began to discover things like Jet Li's Once Upon A Time in China series, epic fantasy films like Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, and genre bending films like the martial arts/horror/comedy Mr. Vampire. Then came John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, and martial arts fans discovered they could love an Asian action film that had no martial arts. While A Better Tomorrow had former Shaw Brothers contract actor Ti Lung, it's action was stylized gun fights. It also introduced actor Chow Yun Fat, who would star in several other gunfight films, the genre that would go by the name Heroic Bloodshed. What began as bootlegged Shaw Brothers movies had evolved into bootlegged Hong Kong action films, creating a fan base for Hong Kong cinema. A niche that would soon be filled by companies like Dragon Dynasty, who legally released Hong Kong action films on home video.

Unauthorized home video releases, including Master Killer with an altered title to throw off copyright owners, and The Executor released as Killers Two both to throw off copyright owners and to make the movie look like a sequel to The Killer.

Unauthorized home video releases, including Master Killer with an altered title to throw off copyright owners, and The Executor released as Killers Two both to throw off copyright owners and to make the movie look like a sequel to The Killer.

But while the modern Hong Kong action films were readily available on DVD, finding "Old School" martial arts films on was a problem. Most of what was available were from pan-and-scan video masters made back in the days of VHS. A majority of the movies on DVD were unauthorized releases. Companies like Ground Zero released DVDs mastered from store bought VHS releases, and even bootlegs, reasoning that since the original distributors had gone bankrupt years earlier, that no one owned the North American copyrights. This was not the case with the larger studios like Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest who claimed worldwide copyrights to their movies, and occasionally took legal steps to shut down illegal releases of their films. The Shaw Brothers films found on DVD were the same Larry Bensky edits, only now were many generations old. A few were mastered from actual film prints, but these were worn out theatrical prints. A good number of Shaw Brothers films were not available anywhere, bootleg, unauthorized or otherwise.

The second martial arts film imported by Warner Brothers was sold to New World Pictures, re-edited and renamed Seven Blows of the Dragon.

The second martial arts film imported by Warner Brothers was sold to New World Pictures, re-edited and renamed Seven Blows of the Dragon.

SHAW BROTHERS ON VIDEO

Warner Brothers was the first distributor of Shaw Brothers movies in North America, Five Fingers of Death in 1973. Their studio had just co-produced the Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon which was set for release later that year, and decided to pre-release an Asian martial arts movie as a way to prime Americans on the genre. Up to that point, martial arts movies had not been distributed beyond the Chinatown and arthouse theaters. The goal was simply to create good word of mouth about martial arts movies. Unexpectedly, it became a success, making $4 million at the box office despite having no actors known to Americans. Looking to capitalize on their good fortune, Warner went back to Shaw Brothers to distribute another of their movies. But they made the mistake of asking the Shaws for their biggest film. That film was The Water Margin, an extravagant production staring every actor at the studio. The movie was based on the epic novel of the same name, and in fact only covered a single chapter. While The Water Margin and it's characters were as familiar to the Chinese, it was unknown in America. Furthermore, the film dealt with swordplay and grand battles, and not the unarmed martial arts from Five Fingers of Death. Realizing they had bought a film that Americans would not be interested in, Warner farmed the film out to New World Pictures, allowing Roger Corman to edit the film and add his own English dubbing in order to simplify the film a give it a plot Americans would understand. The re-edited American version was called Seven Blows of the Dragon.

While some other Shaw Brothers movies saw release in the United States, the majority of the films that hit the theaters during the Kung Fu craze of the 1970s came from the smaller independent studios that were willing to sell the rights to their films for a fraction of what Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest were asking. American distributors were either incapable of telling the difference between a good and bad Chinese film, or simply did not care. The majority of the films distributed to mainstream theaters were poor quality productions, while the majority of the great martial arts films, including those of Shaw Brothers, were only distributed to Chinatown theaters.

Scroll to Continue

While the grindhouse distributors were satisfied with schlock as long as they could make a quick buck distributing exploitation films, it would not be long before a distributor with higher standards emerged. World Northal Corporation was founded in 1976. Unfairly remembered as simply another grindhouse distributor, World Northal brought quality films to American theaters, including Jean-Charles Tacchella's Cousin Cousine, the Who's Quadrophenia and Peter Weir's The Last Wave. Distributing arthouse films was risky because of their limited appeal, and World Northal sought to supplement their profits by also releasing martial arts films. However, unlike other distributors who would simply buy the cheapest Asian films they could find, World Northal showed interest in releasing some of the genre's more prominent productions. They soon learned that the best quality martial arts films were all produced at Shaw Brothers, and soon had a deal to be the exclusive North American distributor of their films. World Northal distributed their first Shaw Brothers film in 1979.

The Master Killer was the first martial arts movie released by World Northal and was immediately hailed as a classic of the genre.

The Master Killer was the first martial arts movie released by World Northal and was immediately hailed as a classic of the genre.

The distribution deals made with foreign studios back then went beyond theatrical, and included television and home video distribution rights. There was good reason for this. Not much money was made distributing grindhouse and arthouse films to television. Usually the only way to make a profit was to sell local stations the broadcast rights to a package of films rather than selling the individual rights to each film in their catalog. The real incentive for including the television rights was more mundane. If they were distributing a film to theaters, they did not want that same film turning up on television the same week. They would have spent good money promoting their films, including television, radio and print ads. If after all that the same movie was to air on television the same week it was to begin screening in theaters, then everyone would stay home and watch it instead of buying theater tickets. If the theatrical distributor did not also secure the broadcast rights, then there was the possibility that the studio that made the film could sell it to television while it was still in the theaters. Oddly, distributors of martial arts movies took this perception even though, in the 70s, there was little chance an Asian martial arts film would ever air on broadcast television. Home video was thrown into the deal, but back then, with so few owning VCRs, home video profits were so minimal that Asian studios gave them away with little thought. And to be honest, the distributors gave very little thought of selling their films to home video.