Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Charlie Chan teaches us about Classic Film distribution

Hasty conclusion like gunpowder. Easy to explode. - Charlie Chan

Do you ever wonder why TCM won't show a particular movie? Do you ever think to yourself,"How did they pick the movies for that boxed set"? Do you find that your head starts to spin whenever you try to keep all the movie studio names straight?

The world of contemporary classic film distribution is complicated. Before I start, let me just clarify that  when I say "classic film distribution", I mean the system in which current movie studios distribute classic films on DVD and license those same films to be shown on television channels such as TCM, AMC and Fox Movie Channel. Trying to figure out who owns what rights, who can show what, who can sell what and what studios have merged together is no easy task. Having tried to figure it out myself, I have come to the conclusion that it's pretty impossible to understand the whole system. However, a basic understanding of some key facts can help you understand the availability of certain films and the unavailability of others as well as how the system works.

It's like the saying goes, in order to eat an elephant you have to go at it one bite at a time. Let's start understanding the classic film distribution by understanding how one particular boxed set came together.

The Charlie Chan Collection is a boxed set I recently reviewed. Note the language on the box indicates that it's part of the TCM Spotlight collection and it's presented by Warner Home Video.

A few things to know...
  • Time Warner merged with Turner Broadcasting System.
  • Time Warner owns both TCM and Warner Bros.
  • The pre-1986 library of MGM films is controlled by Warner Bros.  MGM is currently owned and controlled by Sony Pictures.
  • Monogram films, post-1936, are controlled by Warner Bros (classified under the MGM library). Pre-1936 films are owned by Paramount which is controlled by Viacom.
  • Fox Entertainment Group owns all the various Fox studios (20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures, etc.) and has full control over the distribution of all of their films. They will sometimes allow channels like TCM to show films in their library.
  • Universal Studios is owned by NBC and they control the distribution of their library of films with some notable exceptions. They also own distribution rights to films by other studios, including 5 out of the 6 Hitchcock films that Paramount released.
  • Pathe Studios merged with RKO. The library of Pathe and RKO films is owned by Time Warner and thus distributed by Warner Bros.

Now here is a time line for the Charlie Chan films...
  • 1926 - Pathe releases the first Charlie Chan film The House without a Key. The film is considered lost.
  • 1927- Universal Studios releases the second Charlie Chan film The Chinese Parrot. This film is also considered lost.
  • 1929 - Fox acquires the rights to the Charlie Chan character.
  • 1929-1937 - Fox releases 17 Charlie Chan films. 1 with E.L. Park, 1 in Spanish, Eran Trece, and 15 with Warner Oland.
  • 1938 - Warner Oland dies.
  • 1939 - Fox hires Sidney Toler to play Charlie Chan
  • 1939-1942 - Fox releases 11 Charlie Chan films with Sidney Toler but then decide to abandon the franchise.
  • 1942 - Sidney Toler buys the rights to the Charlie Chan character and starts making pictures with Monogram Studios.
  • 1942-1946 - Monogram releases 11 Charlie Chan films with Sidney Toler.
  • 1947 - Sidney Toler dies.
  • 1947 - Monogram hires Roland Winters to play Charlie Chan
  • 1947-1949 - Monogram releases 6 Charlie Chan films with Roland Winters
To put the Charlie Chan franchise in perspective:
  • TCM and Warner Bros. can distribute one lost Pathe film (if it's ever found) and all of the Monogram films (half Sidney Toler and all of Roland Winters).
  • Fox can distribute all of the Warner Oland Charlie Chans and the first 11 of the Sidney Toler Charlie Chans.
  • Universal Studios can only distribute The Chinese Parrot, if they ever find it.

Warner Bros. had already released some of their Charlie Chan films. They could not put any Warner Oland Charlie Chans in the set because those are owned by Fox. They put a "new to DVD" spin on the set which would exclude the following films:

The Secret Service (1944)
The Chinese Cat (1944)
Meeting at Midnight (1944)
The Jade Mask (1945)
The Scarlet Clue (1945)
The Shanghai Cobra (1945)

With only a few films left, TCM and Warner Bros. chose to create a boxed set with 3 Sidney Toler Charlie Chans and 1 Roland Winters Charlie Chan. And thus we get the TCM Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection!

So next time you find yourself daydreaming about the perfect DVD boxed set and wondering why it isn't available, just know that putting a boxed set together is much more difficult than you think.


Quelle Note: I tried to be as accurate as possible in the post above. If you find any errors or want me to include additional information, please e-mail me at Quellelove at gmail dot com.


  1. That was a very interesting post, Raquel, very nice detective work!

  2. The Australian TCM only ever seems to play war movies - which is definitely NOT my favourite genre.

    I'm excited for the Warner's archive collections release of Bette Davis box set. :) I think it came out recently, or it's coming out soon. I'll have to order it from America, though

  3. Very well done, although I do have one correction to make. Universal is owned by NBC Universal, the company which owns both Universal and NBC. NBC Universal, in turn, us is owned by GE, and may soon be owned by Comcast!

    Anyhow, it is the same sort of problem that keeps a lot of classic DVD shows off DVD. The reason the 1960's Batman series isn't on DVD yet is because of a power struggle between Fox (the studio who produced the series), Time-Warner (who own DC Comics and hence the character), and the heirs of William Dozier (who produced the show).

  4. Actually Raquel, MGM owns the six earlier Sidney Toler Chans by virtue of its 1981 acqusition of United Artists. Warner controls almost all of the post-1945 Monogram/Allied Artists library (including the five Chans in the new DVD set) thanks to its purchase of the previous owner, Lorimar Pictures.


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