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 In the 90s their films were withdrawn from worldwide distribution, and could only be seen through bootlegs of old pan and scan releases.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The market for selling Asian films to television was limited to giant monster movies like Godzilla. Martial arts films were seen as too violent to ever be allowed on television. A few exceptions were made with American produced action films featuring martial arts, which were all shown during the late night hours. But otherwise the only martial arts to be shown on broadcast television during the 70's Kung Fu craze was the television series Kung Fu, which limited fight scenes in every episode to no more than four or five onscreen strikes.
World Northal was the first to think differently. Certainly if a martial arts movie was properly edited, then the graphic violence could be removed while leaving most of the movie intact. They believed they could edit television friendly versions of their movies and syndicate them to local stations across the country. The task was given to editor Larry Bensky who for his troubles asked that each television edit have his name burned into the opening credits. And perhaps Bensky deserved to have his name immortlized this way. Not only did he remove what was obviously unairable, such as nudity and the occasional curse word, but carefully went through every single fight scene to tone down the violence. Sometimes this was done with a simple pan-and-scan trick. The screen would pan away from the more violent strikes so that you would see the entire fight scene, but the villain would be hit off screen, leaving just the sound of the strike to let you know what happened. Other times micro edits were made to lessen the impact. When a character was stabbed, you only saw the moment the blade made contact, but then there was a quick split second edit that included a jump pan cut so that the blood could be removed. In 1981 World Northal began syndicating their martial arts movies in a package they called Black Belt Theater. They would find many television stations across the country daring enough to air them. Black Belt Theater soon became a hit in most of the cities that aired it.
World Northal retained the exclusive home video rights to all their films, including that of all the Shaw Brothers films. In 1983 Vista Home Video ( not to be confused with Buena Vista Home Video ) got the rights to five Shaw Brothers movies from World Northal that were sold directly to rental shops. Somewhere between 1983 and 1987 other Shaw Brothers movies began showing up on VHS and also sold directly to rental shops. These videos came in a clam shell box, with little more than both the English dub title and the original Hong Kong title of the movie on the box, along with the original HK poster art, the back decorated with stills from the film, and the SB logo on the spine. The video itself was taken directly from the Larry Bensky television edit. During the credits, the screen momentarily switches to a SB Video copyright which covers up the Bensky edited for television credit. There are three competing stories to where these videos came from. Already mentioned was the urban legend of a World Northal employee stealing the video masters as the company was going bankrupt and releasing the videos himself. More recently one of the bootleggers made a claim that he was the one who originated SB Video. His story was he befriended the employees of World Northal, who in turn allowed him to make copies of the master tapes. The third story is probably the most likely. That the original SB videos were authorized releases made by World Northal. The story goes that World Northal wanted to cash in on the emerging home video market, but did not feel like paying a second editor to make new unedited pan-and-scan masters. So they simply reused their edited for television masters, removing the Larry Bensky credit.
Embassy Home Video had made a modest profit releasing Chuck Norris films on video. They became interested in releasing Slaughter in San Francisco, a Golden Harvest film featuring Chuck Norris as the villain. World Northal held the distribution and video rights to the film, and had included it as one of the movies on Black Belt Theater. In the negotiations for the rights, World Northal insisted that Embassy purchase a nine movie package that would include the Chuck Norris film. Embassy picked movies with stars they felt had some name recognition. A Man Called Tiger and The Tattooed Dragon had Jimmy Wang Yu. Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment had Sonny Chiba. The Tattoo Connection had Jim Kelly. When Tae Kwon Do Strikes had Angela Mao. And because they thought even Bruce Li could sell videos, they picked Dynamo and The Three Avengers. The Shaw Brothers films did not have any stars with name recognition, but someone at Embassy recognized the title Master Killer, so it became one of the nine.
Initially, Slaughter in San Francisco was the only movie they released, and they planned to sell the other titles to some other video company. But in 1985 they decided that their label Embassy Home Video would released all nine films as budget videos @ $10 per movie. The Master Killer was one of the last of the nine to be released in 1986, and to Embassy's surprise sold out everywhere. Embassy was now interested in releasing more Shaw Brothers movies. They had negotiated for The Chinatown Kid, the one film available from World Northal that the Shaws had shot in the United States. And if that film also sold as well as Master Killer, Embassy would be interested in releasing more Shaw Brothers movies. But the fates would not allow this to be. Embassy had been sold to Coca-Cola, who in turn sold the video division to Dino De Laurentiis where it became Nelson Entertainment. Nelson was not interested in releasing any more World Northal martial arts films, and Chinatown Kid was shelved while all the other Black Belt Theater titles went out of print.
What is notable about the Black Belt Theater films brief video release, was that World Northal had delivered to Embassy masters which were the Larry Bensky edits with instructions to mask the edited for television credit with the copyright from the respective companies that produced each film. Embassy did so with smaller pop up windows that only covered the credit itself, but allowed the rest of the movie to be seen around the borders. This lends credibility to the suggestion that SB Video was released through World Northal. Video stores at the time seemed convinced that SB Video was legitimate. Even if the company was legitimate, by 1990 all SB videos were bootlegs. World Northal had gone into bankruptcy in 1986. It was possible a deal with Embassy to distribute Shaw Brothers movies on video could have saved the company. Instead the North American rights to most of the Shaw Brothers films went into limbo.
With World Northal gone, Shaw Brothers began to market their films directly to American video companies. Not many were interested. Shaw Brothers was now well aware of how popular their movies had become, and because of that was asking for the same fees that a major Hollywood studio would for their movies. Master Arts was one of the largest video companies that exclusively released martial arts films. When sales in New York City began to fall off, they sent a representative to investigate. What he discovered was that they were losing business to the bootleg SB videos. Realizing that they could recapture the market by selling Shaw Brothers movies themselves, they set up a meeting with Run Run Shaw himself, who was promoting the Shaw Brothers movies at a video convention in Las Vegas. They were shocked at how much Shaw Brothers were demanding for their movies. Master Arts was too use to buying the rights to their films from distributors near bankruptcy who basically sold them those cheap independent martial arts films they had released in theaters during the 70s. They were not willing to pay top dollar for the Shaw Brothers films.
What Master Arts did not seem to know, is that they already had a few Shaw Brothers films in their library. Master Arts would buy out small video companies when they went out of business just to get access to their catalog of movies. This allowed Master Arts to increase their own library. But what they did not know is that many of those companies did not actually have the rights to the films they had been selling. A common practice was to remove the original opening credits and replace it with new credits and a new title. The idea was that with so many martial arts films flooding the market, by changing the title the real copyright owners would never find out. That is how Master Arts ended up with Iron Fingers of Death retitled Death Mask of the Ninja, and Karate Exterminators retitled Lightning Kung Fu.
One company that did see the value in the Shaw Brothers movies and was willing to pay top dollar for them was South Gate Entertainment. In 1990 they released six Shaw Brothers movies. These were sold directly to video rental shops rather than through retail stores, The same strategy as Vista Home Video did with their Shaw Brothers movies. And just like Vista, South Gate Entertainment went out of business. It was almost as if the Shaw Brothers movies were cursed. South Gate was purchased by Hemdale, a company that produced budget videos to outlets like Woolworth. In 1993 The Shaw Brothers films were re-released in the same South Gate boxes, but taped in SLP. It appears Hemdale only released the South Gate videos that one time, and appears to have gone bankrupt soon after. The Shaw Brothers curse struck again.
One final attempt to release Shaw Brothers movies came from Fox Lorber. The company had made a nifty profit releasing John Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled, and soon after became interested in releasing Shaw Brothers movies. They made a deal with Orion Home Video who now held the rights and the masters of Embassy to re-release the Black Belt Theater videos in their library. These were released on Lorber's satellite label Forum Home Video. The Chinatown Kid was finally released, along with a re-release of The Master Killer. Dynamo, The Three Avengers and The Tattoo Connection also saw a re-release. The boxes they came in credited the films as Shaw Brothers productions, but all three came from independent Hong Kong studios. The Forum videos went through a single pressing. Word has it that they were informed soon after that the World Northal rights had expired, and Orion did not have the rights to sell them the Shaw Brothers movies. Once again, a Shaw Brothers home video release was cut short.
Not every Shaw Brothers release resulted in the bankruptcy of a video company. Warner Brothers may have been the first studio to distribute Shaw Brothers movies in America, but by the time they had a home video division, the distribution rights to those films were long gone. The one exception was The Water Margin, which they owned the copyright for the American edit called Seven Blows of the Dragon. This became the only Shaw Brothers martial arts movie to get a decent home video release in the days of VHS. Strangely, Warner Brothers was able to acquire the video distribution rights to a few Shaw Brothers movies in the U.K. Many of those releases ended up being used as masters for U.S. bootlegs. Another Shaw film to get a decent release was Super Inframan, a sci-fi superhero film similar to that of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. It was released by two major video companies under the title Infra Man, and in the 90s on Goodtimes Home Video under the title Infaman Is Power. It is very possible that the video right of that film had reverted back to Shaw Brothers by the time Gootimes released it. Goodtimes was notorious for releasing unauthorized movies using loopholes in the copyright laws.
By this point Shaw Brothers was no longer allowing their movies to be released on home video. Basically, they took their entire movie library and stuck it back in the vault. There is a complicated reason they did this, involving the refinancing of the television network they owned by mortgaging their movie library, which in turn required that they assign a value to that library, which they apparently could not do if the films were still in circulation. But it was not as if they could entierly lock down their entire library. Tai Seng had been releasing some of their older and minor releases, and continued to do so as late as 1999, claiming that the tapes had been manufactured before their right expired. There was also a thriving unauthorized video market in the United States, where movies were released under the assumption that the World Northal bankruptcy, meant that the Shaw Brothers films were public domain in the United States.
Shaw Brothers seemed to completely miss the DVD revolution. Only a few of their movies were released on Laserdisc, and in those cases the films were not even letterboxed, and were mastered from used theatrical prints. But just because no DVD quality remasters existed, that did not stop those releasing unauthorized Shaw Brothers videos from releasing their movies on DVD. Most of those DVDs were mastered from multi generation bootlegs of the SB Video releases. Occasionally someone would borrow a film print from a collector, and an actual uncut letterboxed Shaw Brother movie would show up on DVD. Once again, these were worn theatrical prints, and the transfer from film to digital tape was far from perfect. While the studio had largely discontinued producing theatrical films in 1985, they did occasionally produce the odd film every now and then in the years that followed. Those new Shaw Brothers movies did get the full DVD treatment, and were not part of the library Shaw Brothers had mortgaged. But they were neither the classics that fans had been waiting for. A few of the films from the classic era did make it to DVD. Two co-productions between the Shaws and Brittian's Hammer Films, Shatter and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires had their remastered DVD releases. As did the Shaws one attempt to cash in on the popularity of King Kong with their own version, The Mighty Peking Man. Quentin Tarantino was able to track down a quality print and acquire the home video and theatrical release rights for his distribution company Rolling Thunder.
THE COMPETITION FOR THE SHAW BROTHERS FILMS
The Shaw Brothers movies had been officially out of circulation for quite a while when in 2000 it was announced that Shaw Brothers Studios sold their film library to a company called Celestial Pictures. At the time there were no plans other than for Clelestial to begin a long term program of restoring all the films in the library. In 2002 Celestial announced they would begin releasing the remastered movies on DVD and other home media. This was good news for Shaw Brothers fans in China, but for fans in the United States there was no announcement of a domestic release. It would be three years before any American video company announced they would be releasing any of the Shaw Brothers films. In that time, fans of the films had no idea if Celestial would ever release the Shaw Brothers movies in this country. For them, the only option was to buy imported DVDs from Asia, and any other country that was releasing the movies.
While there was no indication that Celestial was offering these movies to North America, behind the scenes negotiations for the film rights began almost immediately after Celestial announced the Asian releases. When Shaw Brothers tried to sell their movie rights back in 1990, nearly every video company showed indifference. They felt the Shaws were asking for too much money. They saw no difference between a Shaw Brother movie and some cheap low budget film shot in Taiwan with no name actors that had little fighting talent. They failed to understand that a film studio in Hong Kong could have as big a following as Bruce Lee. It was a different story a decade later. For one thing, there were now several video companies that specialized in Asian action movies, and were well aware of the popularity and quality of the Shaw Brothers films. This time around there were dozens of companies, both big and small, vying for the movie rights. Everyone from the budget video company Ground Zero, to the newly founded Shout! Factory was interested. But in the end, the movies would be distributed by five companies.
Disney owned Miramax was Bob Weinstein's company, and had been responsible for importing half of the Golden Harvest Jackie Chan films that hit theaters and home video in the 90s, as well as other Asian action films. It had a bad reputation for reediting and redubbing classic martial arts movies, and for shelving some films they had the rights to indefinitely. One rumor was that they held the rights to the 14th movie in the Zatoich series, which was why it was the only movie out of the 26 not available in the United States. There was never any conformation that Miramax was negotiating for the Shaw Brothers films, but it was something that everyone was suspecting. Some even accused Miramax of already buying the rights to the Shaw Brothers movies, which was why they had not been released in the U.S. It was Miramax's Dimension Films division that had been negotiating for the Shaw Brothers. In 2005, the Weinstein brothers left Miramax and took Dimension with them. They founded Weinstien Company, and soon after founded Dragon Dynasty as a video label that would from then on release Dimension's Asian films. No rights for the Shaw Brothers movies were finalized before the split with Miramax, otherwise Disney may have ended up owning the distribution rights. During the bidding process, other companies dropped out as the price of the films went up. Four others continued to negotiate.
Founded in 1997, Media Blasters was one of the first companies to distribute Japanese anime. A year later they launched their Tokyo Shock label to release live action Japanese movies. Many who worked at Tokyo Shock were fans of Shaw Brothers, and were determined to land the rights to their films. They went toe-to-toe with Miramax, and later Dragon Dynasty, over some of the most popular Shaw Brothers movies. Inevitably Dragon Dynasty would end up with the rights to most of the biggest Shaw Brothers films, but Tokyo Shock would manage to grab quite a few notable titles of their own.
Image Entertainment had been around since 1981, and specialized in acquiring the rights to the films that other home video were ignoring, but they felt had some cultural merit. Mostly movies with cult status, and art films. During the negotiations for the Shaw Brothers films they specifically sought out some of the more obscure movies, many which were not even martial arts. They only competed with Dragon Dynasty and Tokyo Shock over a couple of titles, ending up with the rights to 30 films.
While other video companies dropped out of competition, the budget video company Brentwood remained in competition. In the past they had specialized in releasing public domain and unauthorized movies, retailing for under $10. The parent company, Navarre Corporation, decided they wanted to rebrand Brentwood. Changing it's name to BCI, they decided to give up releasing budget videos, and from then on release more prominent films. BCI had hired an expert who knew what Shaw Brothers films were worth acquiring. And while BCI could not hope to compete with Dragon Dynasty, Tokyo Shock or Image, they were able to grab some of the notable films that those companies missed. They also hired martial arts movie historian Rich Myers to write the liner notes for their releases, and possibly even asked for his advice on which were the strongest ones they should release first.
The fifth company to stay in competition was a relatively new distributor of films and videos. Well Go ended up with the martial arts films that the other four companies had turned down.
.....AND THE BOTCHED RELEASE
In late 2005 Image announced that they would be releasing their 30 Shaw Brothers films, sometime in the summer of 2006. It would be yet another year before Tokyo Shock and Dragon Dynasty would confirm that they also would be releasing any Shaw Brothers movies, and a couple of more years before BCI or Well Go announced their releases. It should be noted the long lag of time between the original Celestial releases in Asia, and the releases in North America. This gave plenty of time for some unsavory video companies to release their own unauthorized Shaw Brothers movies, using the Asian DVDs for their masters, and even copying the Celestial boxes with the only change being them adding their companies logo. These were basically bootlegs, and legally were bootlegs once the real video companies acquired the proper copyrights. Especially helpful for these bootleg companies was Image giving them nearly a whole year head start between the date they announced their own Shaw Brothers releases, and when they actually did begin releasing Shaw Brothers movies. Retailers were now expecting Shaw Brothers films, and began putting the bootlegs on their shelves because they thought they were legit. Even Amazon had the bootlegs up for sale. Between the imports and bootlegs, it is unknown how many Shaw Brothers fans ended up buying the movies before they were actually released. And once they owned a copy, there would be little reason to buy a second copy. The delay on releasing the Shaw Brothers movies was costing sales to the companies releasing them.
Another thing that should have been taken into account was that it had been nearly 20 years since the Shaw Brothers movies had aired on Black Belt Theater. It was the broadcast of these movies every Saturday afternoon that gradually built a following for Shaw Brothers Studios in the United States. That following would include the rap group Wu Tang Clan who's members had been fans of the martial arts films shown on Channel 5 in New York. That following was enough to make the bootleg SB videos into best sellers, and to have the market expand into films that never even aired on Black Belt Theater. But that was another generation. After 20 years, many of those Shaw Brothers fans either grew out of liking the genre, or simply died. For the current release of Shaw Brothers movies to be discovered by a new generation, there would need to be some sort of promotion, and some sort of coordination of the releases. It would have been smart for many of the strongest films to be released first, and once demand in the films had been re-established, move on to the other titles. But neither happened. There was very little pre-promotion of the Shaw Brothers films. They basically hit the shelves cold. And it was the weakest titles that hit the shelves first.
If the Shaw Brothers films had any chance in this country, it would have been if the older generation of fans were able to introduce a new generation to the studios best martial arts films. Up to that point all they could show them was poor quality pan-and-scan edited for content bootlegs. But for those newbies who had been hearing about the legendary Shaw Brothers studio for years, there would only be dismay if they sampled the first five of Image's releases in 2006. Image seems to have cornered the market in Shaw Brothers horror films. Their first release was Black Magic, the only horror movie to have been previously released by SB Video. ( in fact, the only non martial arts movie to be released by SB ) While in the past Shaw Brothers fans were entertained by the novelty of watching familiar studio actors like Ti Lung. Lilly Li and Lo Lieh in a movie where they were not in any martial arts fights, this film had very little to offer. Both it's special effects and shock value had dated since it's release in the 70s. The second release was the sci-fi film Infra Man which had been previously released as Super Inframan back in the days of VHS. Since Infra Man was one of the few uncut Shaw Brothers films widely available in the 80s, and widely available as a budget video in the 90s, it was not as in demand by fans as were the films that were never released uncut. It was also not a martial arts film. It did have some fighting, of the style you would find in a Power Rangers show. But nothing that would excite a serious martial arts fan.
The big problem was that there was already an established Asian martial arts fan base in America, but not much of a fan base for Asian horror films or sci-fi films. And worse, neither of these releases were being targeted to those fan bases. Most retailers had assumed that all the Shaw Brothers movies were martial arts. In many stores these films would be found in the Martial Arts section with expectations they would sell as well as the SB Videos had sold back in the 90s. This deminished any chance of horror or sci-fi fans finding these movies and impulse buying them. As for the hard core Shaw Brothers fans, they knew exactly what these films were. But most of them were only interested in the studios martial arts films. Both Infra Man and Black Magic would become the first Shaw Brothers movies to sell poorly.
The third film was The Water Margin, once again one of the few Shaw Brothers films to already have an American video release as Seven Blows of the Dragon. Not the best example of a Shaw Brothers film, and there was good reason why Warner Brothers felt they needed to edit the film down. The story and characters of the 108 Mountain Bandits was as familiar to Chinese audiences as the story and characters of Lord of the Rings was to American audiences. But for those unfamiliar with the tale, here you had a film that picks up in the middle of a 100 chapter novel and involves far too many characters for the uninitiated to keep track of. The martial arts in this film were appropriate for an epic film of it's kind, but nowhere as good as the martial arts found in most of the other Shaw Brothers films released around this time. The fourth release was The Boxers Omen, another gross out horror film with dated special effects. And the fifth was The Cave of the Silken Web, the third of a series of films targeted to children that was based on another epic 100 chapter Chinese novel, Journey to the West. Image had previously announced they would be releasing the first film in the series, Monkey Goes West, which set the story up. But that movie was never released by Image. The novel details the origins of the Monkey King, and how he and three other magical half animal companions accompany a monk to India on a dangerous journey to retrieve a sacred scroll. All of this would have been explained in the first film. For those unfamiliar with the story of the Monkey King, and that would be most Americans, the third movie in the series would look ridiculous.
Image's first film release of 2007 was Legendary Weapons of China, one of the few of their films to have been shown on Black Belt Theater. On the surface this would seem to be their strongest Shaw Brothers acquisition. It had once been selected as the greatest martial arts movie ever made by film historian Ric Meyers. But it does have a complicated plot based on historical events familiar to the Chinese but not well known in the states. It also has an annoying section where for a while the film turns into a comedy. If the viewer can get to the end of the movie, it does have a great martial arts battle where the combatants use every single traditional martial arts weapon, but many would question exactly why Meyers felt this film merited being called the greatest. Once again, something not exactly accessible to those watching a Shaw Brothers production for the first time, but at lest one of the films most of the die hard Shaw Brothers fans would buy, provided they had not already bought it elsewhere. For the rest of the year Image released six wuxia films ( films where the main characters use mostly swordplay and very little unarmed combat. ). These films had been made at a time when the studios actors had only just begun training in the martial arts, and were still using stunt men and special effects like wirework and trampolines for the fight sequences. Many Shaw Brothers fans considered these films "too slow" and worried that they would never sell that well. And if they did not sell that well, there was a chance that Image may discontinue releasing any more Shaw Brothers films. The two other films released by Image that year was Heaven & Hell, a confusing horror fantasy where the hero dies and goes to hell, and has to battle and bargain his way out, and Killer Snakes, another horror film where a mentally deranged loner trains snakes to kill his enemies.
On forums, chat rooms and blogs, martial arts fans threated were dismayed with the Image releases. Not that they did not want to see obscure Shaw Brothers films released. Far from it. The films Image was releasing were the ones they had initially feared were too obscure to ever see release in the United States. But they also acknowledged that these films were not going to sell as well as some of the more popular Shaw Brothers films. And if there were poor sales, then there was a possibility that Image could discontinue releasing the second half of their 30 films. They were underestimating the problem. By now retail stores across the country had 10-15 Shaw Brothers titles on their shelves that were not moving. They did not care that these were the more obscure Shaw Brothers films, all they cared about was that they had Shaw Brothers movies and no one was buying them. By the time the popular movies were finally released, many stores were not interested in ordering them.
On June 19th of 2007, Dragon Dynasty released the first four of their Shaw Brothers films. But even their picks for their first releases was ill advised. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and King Boxer were one of the few Shaw Brothers films to have been available since the 90s as unedited letterboxed prints. These were unauthorized releases using theatrical prints under the American titles Master Killer and Five Fingers of Death respectively. While the Dragon Dynasty remastered versions were so much better than the warn out theatrical prints, these films were not high in demand among collectors of martial arts films, simply because they already owned them. Something that had never been available letterboxed and uncut would have sold a lot better.Another release, The One Armed Swordsman, should have also been saved for a later release. It may have been a historic milestone in martial arts films, and may have deserved to be released at one point, but it was another old wuxia that would not sell as well as their 70s classics. The best of the first four released was My Young Auntie, a martial arts comedy directed by the great Lau Kar Leung. But it was still not among the strongest of the Shaw Brothers titles that Dragon Dynasty owned.