The Box-Art Underground: A Tribute to Video Cover Art Snobs and Snobbery

One might say that I have a special affinity towards movie artwork. Because I take that affinity to heights I have heretofore neither expressed nor “confessed,” I have instead often called it yet another strangely obsessive peccadillo of my movie-crazy persona. Movie posters and video cover-art have always captivated me since childhood. Early on, I even took to designing my own hand-drawn covers for VHS movies I taped off TV at a very young age. It often got the point where, if I really liked a movie and it that movie had a video cover design that I considered poor or substandard, it would cast a pall over everything—my enjoyment of the movie, the thankfulness that I could watch whenever I wanted, everything. I know, that’s pretty crazy and taking the whole thing too far. Owning movies with video cover-art that is graphically pleasing was always a must for me, though. If I really had been questing in my search for a harder-to-find title that I wanted to see badly and if I had found the movie for sale only to discover that it lacked the desired cover-art, I would opt not to buy it at that time. Lazy cover-art for certain releases of titles superceded my intense desire to see the titles behind the art. It was a compulsion and, yes, a neurosis that I never have spoken about openly until now. Even as a filmmaker, I’ve been rather particular about the art and design for promoting my own films. If such a self-help group called Movie-Art Snobs Anonymous existed, I would undoubtedly be recommended to join. However, in the past couple years, I have discovered that there are many others out there just like me. How lovely to know that I’m not alone! Now, deep breath and say “I’m okay.”

My compulsive snobbery eventually did, however, become the impetus behind what still remains one of my favorite hobbies: graphic designing of video covers. Click on the Video Cover Art link at the top of this page to see some of my DVD cover designs. I soon found that there are worse cover-art snobs than myself, and they live on the Criterion Forum pages. For instance, I remember an “epic struggle” on the site that resulted in a petition being written to urge Janus Films and the Criterion Collection to completely overhaul the planned hot-pink cover-art planned for a release of Buñuel’s Viridiana before it officially hit the shelves. There were many, many signatures. In case you are interested in the outcome, Criterion did wind up redesigning the cover for that title. Power to the people! Um, yeah.

For an entire transcript of the impassioned Viridiana cover "uprising," visit Criterion Forum.

Recently, as I was browsing through Barnes and Noble, I encountered a very curious book called Portable Grindhouse: The Lost Art of the VHS Box by Jacques Boyreau (pictured above next to the first paragraph) — a picture-book consisting entirely of VHS cover-designs for grindhouse titles. I was beginning to feel a lot more sane. And the saner and saner I started to feel, the more I also began to realize that there were obviously other “cover-heads” out there who felt the same way I did about good video-cover designs. Brothers! Sisters! ‘Tis I, a fellow cover-head! With this realization (and confirmation that friends of mine have much the same appreciation for a well-designed cover), I have decided to pay tribute to unsung video companies with the best cover designs, mostly in VHS but also in DVD.

A Tribute to the VHS Cover Art of United American Video
Where did I really pick up my movie-art snobbery? It’s not an easy answer because it’s something that cemented itself over the years. However, I can attribute a great deal to the work of one particular company and their designs. When I was about seventeen, I took to buying only VHSs from United American Video. I loved their cover designs so much that I was resolved to find all of them. My love of this company is deep-seated because I remember, as a nine and ten-year-old in the early-to-mid 1990’s, accompanying my shopaholic mother to thrift stores and spending the entire time looking at a special rack of brand new and shrinkwrapped videos, all of them manufactured by United American Video. At that age, all the titles on this rack were so mysterious. I had never heard of any of them. I still connect a lot of those titles with the smell of Citronella. Why? Because this rack of videos always bordered a bin of Citronella candles that were on sale. The actual movie titles I remember seeing ranged from things like obscure spaghetti Westerns, badly dubbed Euro-thrillers, mid-range 70’s action thrillers, Italian romantic comedies featuring some adventurous American star, little indies that fell between the cracks, unknown made-for-TV pictures, TV series episodes like Lou Grant with Ed Asner (I had only known about that through watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on Nick-at-Nite), and the like. The thing that struck me the most then, though, was how aptly designed and smart-looking the covers looked.

Some time later, I discovered that United American Video put out a series of arbitrary collections, like The Samuel Goldwyn Collection, the Rank Film Classics Collection, the World Premiere Movie Collection, etc. Obviously, the company had licensed films from other companies (often defunct ones) at a given time and had chosen to distribute them under collection banners. For one, the Samuel Goldwyn Collection titles had bright-colored strips running across the top of the boxes garishly exclaiming their inclusion in the Samuel Goldwyn Collection, and the man with the gong (the J. Arthur Rank Films trademark) logo lay below a band reading “Rank Film Classics” on those titles. UAV was (and still is, for that matter) a budget-release company, but what set them apart from others of their like was how cool their designs looked, as well as the wider range of interesting obscure titles. I also attribute my love of markedly obscure films to my days of collecting UAV videos. Their designs (at least the ones from 1989 through around 1996) were never slapdash and always seemed fresh, original, well-arranged and rightly colored. I became a video collector at a very early age and, by the time I reached the age of seventeen, I had made a vow to myself to get my hands on every UAV title worth owning, and to complete my Samuel Goldwyn and Rank Film Classics collections. The word “weirdo” is probably running through most of your heads right now. Okay, then, I’m not going to read your passionate blog entry about your impressive collection of rare belly-button lint! Or the one about your celebrity shot-glasses and how you’re still missing Scott Baio’s! How ‘bout that?! I jest, of course. It took me a long time to find images for these, but here are just a few images of Samuel Goldwyn Collection titles:

I first had to do a great deal of research about what titles were actually in these collections. Information on the Internet was not forthcoming in any way because, even if the same titles had then been available from other distributors at that time, they had long gone out-of-print from UAV. I even called the company at their North Carolina headquarters at several points, to inquire about titles connected to specific product spine-numbers (which, in retrospect, must have been a weird call from the people on the other end—if I recall, when I told one of the UAV employees I was collecting these titles, a long condescending silence followed). Through sheer determination, I was able to piece a lot of the information together. On many an occasion, I even got lucky and happened onto purchasing desired titles at flea markets and such. I was most often more lucky than not at picking up a lot of them unexpectedly. All of a sudden, as I would be scouring vast tables of VHS tapes at flea markets, one or two would be staring me right in the face. I would excitedly squeal, daresay almost like a little girl, as I found one and picked one up. As for the others, I can only thank a little site called eBay. At one point, I chanced to meet a video-dealer on eBay who had an “in” with a warehouse stocked full of UAV titles. I was his favorite customer for a long time and he was perhaps my biggest help in tracking a lot of titles down, aware of my goal to complete the given “abritrary collections”. You might even say that this seller and I developed a real friendship. eBay-user “mebisping” (if that even still is your user name), if you’re out there and, perchance, find yourself reading this so many years later, a profound thank you.

I hope I haven’t lost you by this point. If you are still reading this by now at this point, I have another story to tell—a recent one. I was browsing through Mondo Kim’s Video and Music in the East Village the other night and happened upon one of just a few VHSs for sale, and it the VHS was a UAV release from the Samuel Goldwyn Collection, and one of the ones I had originally failed to acquire. The old feeling came back, just like the days of my great hunt…that old feeling of profound satisfaction and pride that I had located yet another one. The quest to find these things was momentous and, after all, took a great deal of exertion for me. I am sure that, all these years later, it would be even more of an exertion than it was then, as VHS are getting scarcer and scarcer.

Below are the only photos I could find online (and I looked everywhere, believe me) of covers from the Rank Film Classics Collection, of which many videos were a part. The pixel quality in these photos vary, but you will of course pardon that. Concessions must be made because of their rarity.

Whenever I think of UAV Video, though, I also think of the lost, magic days of the VHS boom, when home theater was a new and exciting commodity that was just on the heels of becoming popular. I romanticize nights at our local video store, a now long-defunct place called Braverman’s Video in my hometown Pittsburgh, which I remember as being well-stocked in selection but not big at all in square-footage. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the store would be very literally filled to the brim with people renting videos on a given weeknight. Those memories are still very real to me, so many years later. The DVD boom just isn’t even nearly the same as the VHS boom. They are just two different animals, you might say. The VHS boom was right when people were getting acquainted with the revolutionary concept of home theater, the idea of being able to play any movie when you wanted and where you wanted. DVD releases might be more plentiful and comprehensive in terms of the number of titles never released on VHS that have thankfully become available for the first time, but the age of the birth of the DVD market is hard (if impossible) to really romanticize in the same way. And then there is the joy of watching an old VHS that hard-core cineastes can attest to. It is the act of watching the films we know in a different way, and it is something in which most everyone has become totally disinterested.

As a person whose need to make films and study films is deep-rooted, those memories of going to the jam-packed Braverman’s Video in Pittsburgh on a given night mean more to me and are more immediate to me than anyone knows. Ultimately, the need that developed within me to be comprehensive and “encyclopedic” with film knowledge I attribute to three things: a severe stutter that alloted the time for advanced film study, UAV Video Corporation’s ecclectic VHS releases complete with their attractive cover-art designs, and the amazing 1990-91 TLA Video Guide that I studied cover-to-cover and nearly memorized as a kid (there has never been another movie guide like that one before or since, even from the TLA themselves, trust me; as an aside, the main TLA video store in Philly even uses the amazing pages of that book as wallpaper). Whenever the opportunity to browse VHSs for sale presents itself, which is sadly seldom these days, I still find myself looking to complete those arbitrary UAV collections…and I still keep those particular accumulated titles all grouped together in the place where I have my vast video collection stored in Pittsburgh. UAV also introduced me to a few of my still-favorite films (e.g. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Dear Mr. Wonderful).

Navigation by Design
Many companies’ designs just fade into the blitz at video stores. Regardless, though, think about this. If you walk into the action section, the colors on the spines conform very neatly and you know that you are in the action section by sheer virtue of the colors and fonts you are seeing together. Action covers, after all, seem to be heavy on blacks, dark greens, heavy browns and the like, and the fonts are very blocky and feel very authoritative. If you are in the comedy section, you know it by spines that are heavy in whites, pinks and light blues, and by fonts which are funner and more spirited, hence less official-looking. One might say that comedy designs have a “tentative” look. Even the drama section, which is an exceedingly general genre name and covers an extremely wide range of subject matter, certainly has its “look,” so much so that you know you are in a drama section. The rest of the genres have their colors and font-styles as well – sci-fi (deep blues, purples, lime greens, skinny and pointed outer-spacey fonts), Western (heavy on browns, beiges, earthtones), thriller (black, baby, black). Yep, you always know where you are in a video store.

When you are in a video store, you can likewise also tell very easily you are in the Criterion section. In many video stores, there is a section for just titles from the Criterion Collection, as they stand for always and ever as the standard of excellence in U.S. video companies. If a film has a Criterion spine number, it speaks to the very excellence of the film. It is fair to say that video junkies expect a great deal from the cover-design artists at the Criterion Collection. Their designers, after all, are real artists and not just your average schmo with a bachelor’s in graphic design. The covers have a definite aesthetic, as their designs are known for their discernible cleanliness (often noticeably resembling the covers of modern fiction books), their meticulous spatial relationships, their conservative but nonetheless still pleasing and intiguing use of colors, their tasteful font selections. The designs are all-around class. The Criterion Forum has a boards-section about the Criterion cover designs. Fans even go so far as to design their own Criterion-style covers. There is even a board devoted entirely to mock Criterion art. What is most important, though, is that the designs speak to the needs and qualities of each individual film. The artists designing them have seem to have thought long and hard about bringing the tonal qualities of each film to life in a graphic sense. In the Region 2 lands, Eureka!’s Masters of Cinema Collection (what some refer to as the British Criterion Collection) have a similar high-standard when it comes to cover art. Some of my favorite Criterion designs appear below.

I will say it upfront and without any flowery build-up: Alpha Video does great cover-art work. Their DVD designs are astonishingly good; they also sell full-size posters of their original video cover-designs. Ironically, they are also a budget-release (read: cheap or bargain-bin) company. Quite frankly, they are the UAV of the DVD market. You might make the case that their catalogue is just as diverse as UAV’s, ranging from old serials to bonafide classics like Meet John Doe and One of Our Aircraft is Missing to 30’s-40’s B pictures (often by directors like Edgar Ulmer) to bonafide obscurities from the 70’s. There would seem to be a regard for a vintage-poster-like sensibility in both the work of UAV and Alpha, but particularly with Alpha.

Of the majors, I cannot say much. Warner Home Video preserves the original poster-art of each individual film for the most part, but other than that, every cover-design aesthetic for companies like MGM, Sony, Fox, Universal and Disney are indistinguishable from the other. However, back in the day, I loved the then-MGM/UA’s pre-1995 VHS cover designs for older catalogue movies. Again, you had exciting graphic arrangements, fine use of color, apt choice of font and a classy presentation. I still have a fine collection of old MGM/UA VHSs, including their gold-topped “Epic Classics” collection (two-tape sets of epic films with a metallic gold legend of an MGM lion logo at the top, see below). There were also single-tape covers with a silver MGM logo legend at the top. Shout-outs must be given to other old and now-defunct VHS companies, like New Yorker Video’s VHSs, Charter, Media, Embassy, Vestron…others that I am sadly forgetting.

Everything Shrinkwrapped
Originally, I just wanted to do a tribute and a salute to UAV. I gradually realized this was too narrow a focus and decided to fit it into an article about cover-art snobbery. Even today, I am still prone to putting titles back in the stores if I am convinced I can get a better cover-design of the same film elsewhere. Ultimately and regardless, the films are still more important, but the need for perfection in collecting is one that requires good movies and good art.

As I examined months ago now in a blog article, movie art is getting lazier and lazier, and there is more of a draw towards bland and “boxy” designs. This is indicative of the fact that Hollywood and mainstream movies seem to be getting lazier and lazier, so it’s logical and apropos that the art would reflect that. Movie-art is a smarter barometer of such things than most people would give it credit for. Besides my personal adoration of and interest in film graphic-design, it may reflect dry-spells, particularly in mainstream cinema. After all, when is the last time you saw a movie-poster or DVD cover design that truly grabbed you? You don't have to be a movie-art snob to have noticed this. I can say, though, that good video cover-art takes me back to that, to me, magical time when home video was the hot new commodity and the movie lover's world seem full of possibility. It may not have been the first time the world opened it itself up, but you cannot deny that it was a milestone.

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