Why aren’t you able to watch the first three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films in UK cinemas? Well, there’s quite a trail to follow.
There’s a delightful podcast, if you’re not aware, called 90 Minutes Or Less. Run by a lovely chap called Sam, it’s a salute to films with a running time of an hour and a half, ideally leaving a bit of change. What’s more, Sam quite likes to put on screening events for his podcast recordings, and that was certainly he plan when it came to covering 1991’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze.
Remember this one? It’s the one where Vanilla Ice popped up to do a bit of music, and it followed the staggering success of 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as fast as it possibly could. It also got into a little battle with the British Board Of Film Classification here in the UK, involving sausages. Meat notwithstanding, Sam thus got in touch with the splendid folks at Park Circus to sort a screening out.
Park Circus is very much a go-to company if you’re looking to screen an older film, and it has an enviable catalogue of movies it has rights to show in the UK. It seemed that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze was one of them, and thus Sam set the wheels in motion. The film appeared listed in the catalogue, but it just needed a double check.
And that’s where things went awry. That double check flagged that there was a problem with screening the movie, and the rights were no longer clear cut. To the day this article is published, they still aren’t, at least where the UK is concerned.
We’re in an era of cinema where screenings of all sorts of older movies are taking place every week around the British Isles, and further afield. These all have to be legally booked, with a few quid going back to the rights holders as part of the deal. Yet the thing is, there hasn’t been a legal UK cinema screening of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze in years. Nor of 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Nor of the less demanded Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, that followed in 1993 (sans Vanilla Ice, tragically)
Not for the want of trying, particularly with the first film. But the simple fact is that nobody quite knows who owns the UK rights anymore: or more to the point, nobody knows who does, if they do at all. Without that crucial piece of information, it’s impossible to legally book a screening in the UK, with absolute confidence that you’re not in breach of someone’s copyright.
Let’s go back in time a little to work out where the problem started.
As I discussed in a podcast episode previously (which should magically appear above), 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the kind of film that no major Hollywood studio was willing to take a gamble on. Some nearly did, with Fox notably pulling its planned investment at the very last minute (nearly taking the film down with it). Yet in the end, it was a mix of funding pots that brought the film to the screen.
Long story short, it was Harvest Films (a subsidiary of Golden Harvest) that put a good chunk of the cash. Based in Hong Kong, it was slowly investing in a mix of Hollywood productions, with not a great deal of success. Separately, the US rights were then taken by New Line Cinema, whose coffers had been swollen by receipts from the likes of The Nightmare On Elm Street saga. 888 Productions popped some cash in as well, and the non-US distribution rights were sold to a bunch of different companies.
In the UK, the listed distributors were the Richard Branson-owned Virgin Vision, and Medusa Entertainment.
Virgin, which initially released the film both in cinemas and on video in the UK, was very much being wound down at the point the Turtles turned up through. Branson’s love affair with film dampened when 1986’s Absolute Beginners lost his company a fair amount of cash, and thus in 1991, the year after Turtles was released, Virgin Vision was up for sale. Its library went to Polygram in 1993, that in turn was ultimately amalgamated into Universal over time. But – keep following this – the video library went to MGM, in a separate deal.
Yet because Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was simply a distribution deal in the UK for Virgin, its future rested with neither company. It never owned the film itself. Then, Medusa, from what I can work out, has since been picked up by Warner Bros, which also bought New Line too.
But the Turtles UK movie rights didn’t go with either deal. We’ll be coming back to them.
Whilst New Line retained the US distribution rights to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze, in the UK, a new partner was needed now Virgin had moved on. In came 20th Century Fox on a distribution deal, and the studio released both the second and third Turtles films in the UK. Fox, helpfully also covered the home video releases of both.
However, the last time Turtles was submitted to the BBFC for a rating was back in 2004 (before the release of the Blu-ray format), by Medusa Comms & Marketing Ltd. Fox was behind the ratings submissions for the second and third film, last submitting them in 2002. Fox had a deal in place in the UK for a while to distribute MGM features on disc, so it may have been part of that, but that’s hard to determine. What’s more certain is that Fox as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s part of the Disney empire. Disney, though, does not hold the UK rights to the first three Turtles films.
The last time the films got a DVD release in the UK was surprisingly recently though: back in 2019, the Mediumrare label released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The second film too, although curiously the most recent release for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was in 2014.
Now Mediumrare is still active, recently for instance releasing the acclaimed British indie film Brian And Charles. And whilst its Turtles releases haven’t gone out of print (at the very least, you can still buy them, so stocks haven’t yet run dry), it’s unlikely that it can do a reprint. Because the waters get murkier: go searching for the first three films on a UK streaming service. Even to buy. Amazon, Netflix, Disney+? Nowhere.
You can only find them on one service: the Apple iTunes store. The listed company that holds the rights on said store? Golden Harvest. A firm that presumably has inked a worldwide deal, but doesn’t have a footprint in UK film distribution directly.
This means, at the least, you can buy the first three Turtles films on disc for the minute in the UK, and there’s a digital version to buy (from just one store).
For a theatrical screening though? Well, people are looking, but not getting the answers. I got in touch with the sleuths at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, who have performed Herculean efforts previously to track down UK rights to film. Even it came up against a pizza-free brick wall.
It did get close to finding a 35mm that had been struck and distributed by Medusa Comms in the UK, a year after its original release (so we’re back in the early 1990s for when that print was made). When Medusa folded its UK theatrical distribution though, it was Entertainment One (now owned by Hasbro, at least for the minute) that snapped up the catalogue. The trail went cold again there, as the Turtles movie UK distribution rights aren’t with Entertainment One, even if they temporarily may have been.
Instead, the Prince Charles Cinema was told that Viacom/Nickelodeon had bought the rights to the characters. Viacom is the parent company of Paramount Pictures, and this would make sense, given that it’s Paramount behind the last three Turtles theatrical films, and the next one as well. The rights are finally in one place for the series. Yet it turns out even then that Paramount doesn’t have the UK rights for – you’ve guessed it – the first three films.
It’s here that the trail goes completely cold. Films such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and The Monster Squad have fallen into a similar abyss in the UK previously and been rescued (the latter thanks to the efforts of The Prince Charles Cinema).
In the case of three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films though, in spite of repeated enquiries and lots of big names, nobody knows. And we’re thus left with a little bit of a rights vacuum where a trilogy of films – and there are others affected in the UK by muddy rights problems too – aren’t able to be seen in the UK on the big screen.
We’ll keep digging. We’d imagine Park Circus will keep digging. Sam at the 90 Minutes Or Less podcast will keep digging. But with a multitude of companies involved, many of which that aren’t trading in the UK anymore, the Turtles may have been defeated not by Shredder, but by corporate shenanigans. Unless anyone out there knows differently….
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