John Harris



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"Behind the X"


© 2016 Palace Projects Darren Banks Copyright © belongs to Palace Projects and the artists. To reproduce text and images please contact Darren Banks

“Fuck off and never talk to me in that way again” is a phrase Steve Wolley instructed his personal assistant to say to Nik Powell when he was behaving badly. Powell was a man who had the capability of being the rudest person on Earth. Yet Powell’s give-it-a-go ethos, quality control and financial acumen with Wolley’s good business head, creative knowledge and sheer passion for film became the foundations of The Palace Group. Originally called The Mega Corporation they then formally changed their name in 1983. The Palace Group was an umbrella company that ventured into record labels, film production and distribution, computer games, and other minor business endeavors. This led the company to stretch itself too thinly over unprofitable film productions and subsequently file for bankruptcy in 1992. However, The Palace Group’s forte lay in distribution; The Video Palace was a specialist video distributor that sold the type of videos you couldn’t get anywhere else, an eclectic mixture of foreign language films, American independents and music videos. Powell and Wolley later moved into film distribution and production through Palace Pictures, a completely new kind of British film company set up in their video shop and The Scala cinema (reopened in 1981, London’s legendary picture house famous for its all-nighters and its trash/horror/art-house double and triple bills).


Darren Bank’s ‘Palace Projects’ is an ongoing collection of artworks that uses The Palace Group’s strength in distribution, disregard for traditional pigeonholing of film, and heavily stylized advertising influenced by Wolley’s interest in American marketing (which is echoed in Bank’s ‘Palace Video (2005)’ based on the iconic Palace Pictures animated VHS indent) to explore the horror genre and recontextualise Palace Pictures.


Bank’s ‘Palace Project’ may scream fanboy on a surface level, however the fandom and clear obsession with film and the horror genre is used to express a relationship between two periods of time. Palace is used as a catalyst to draw parallels on how the technology revolution has altered our relationship and interaction with film. Today you can watch a film almost anywhere, with recommendations and collections being reduced to digital interfaces auto-predicting suggestions to give you a temporary illusion that it’s orchestrated just for you. Yet it’s not about nostalgic analogue technologies here, Palace and the horror films they released become a tangible thread that piece together times of social and cultural change and the evolution of distribution through technology into the 21st century.


Palace Pictures distributed fortynine films to the UK market between 1980 and 1992. Later, they moved into production due to threats from larger companies outbidding them on titles they wanted to acquire in an attempt to mimic Palace’s success with unusual releases. Going into production ensured distribution rights for Palace Pictures. From 1984 to 1992 Palace produced twentythree films including 'Mona Lisa', 'Scandal' and 'The Crying Game', which was to be their final film due to bankruptcy. Ironically, a year later 'The Crying Game' received six academy award nominations and won best original screenplay.


Sam Rami’s 1982 'The Evil Dead' was Palace’s first major hit that launched Palace Pictures into becoming one of the leading forces in the British film industry. Palace decided an unconventional move of simultaneously releasing The Evil Dead direct to video and at the cinema. This wasn’t the done thing, as a general rule of thumb cinema releases shouldn’t hit the video shelves until nine months after initial release. Cinema attendance was at a catastrophic low in the first half of the 80s, dropping to 60 million admissions a year, half of today’s admissions. The British film industry were even fearful that video would ‘finish off cinema for good.’ This alternative strategy by Palace was an attempt to maximise publicity and takings. In six weeks the film had grossed £150,000 in cinemas around the UK. However, the serious profit was made on video. 'The Evil Dead' promotional posters shouted ‘available now on video’ and with Mary Whitehouse labeling it as the “Ultimate Video Nasty” it was a sure hit, becoming the number one seller of that year. Nevertheless, the move incited outrage in many established distributors who saw this as furthering the decline in cinema audiences.


It’s hard to imagine that a new format like VHS could bring fear of ‘finishing off cinema for good’ as today we have access to an infinite collection of films at our fingertips. The marvels of 21st century technologies have increasingly made us accustomed to the prevailing media culture we live in. However, the truth of low cinema attendance in the early 1980s lay in poor programming, poor marketing and poor conditions of the cinemas that hadn’t been updated since the 1940s. Cinema was a subject of its technology and consumer revolution.


Video for the first time offered a new way to experience film. You could watch it in your own time; view your favorite title in its entirety and multiple times without counting on the television network or local cinema. You could even pause the film to go to the toilet instead of awkwardly mouthing and pointing “excuse me, I just need to get out” to other cinema-goers offering a bum instead of the big screen for a split second. VHS was cheap, convenient and gave the consumer access to a wide range of material; video clubs began to crop-up offering one off membership fees and nightly rental charges.


Bank’s ‘Palace Bandwagon (2010)’ a mobile cinema in a black Cadillac replicates the heavy promotion of Palace and Wolley’s interest in American culture. The work is a pastiche of video distributors, a reinterpretation of the video club. The work creates a sense of correlation between the myth and rumor of these iconic horror films, piracy and the freedom of youth culture that spanned a generation enabling young people to watch pre-certificate videos.


Many distributors began to provide rental dealers with video packages that included promotional material, several copies and cases. VHS inserts aided in additional promotion by advertising the distributors back catalogue collection. When Palace distributed horror film on VHS, the inside-cover of the box featured 15 thumbnail images of other horror films on the label with the byline “Don’t miss out on these titles from the Palace Horror Collection”. Whilst the selected films were simply a snap-shop of the Palace company catalogue, Banks defines them as a discreet ‘Palace Collection’ in their own right, and as a catalyst for the ‘Annotated Palace Collection’.



The ‘Annotated Palace Collection (2013)’ comprises of two bodies of work: firstly, fifteen writers wrote short 500 word responses to each film within Palace’s horror collection. Secondly, fifteen artists were invited to create a poster for each of the film titles, based on the supposedly blind-design method of Ghanaian cinema posters. These Ghanaian cinema posters dominated 1980’s Ghana where official movie posters could not be imported, so Ghanaian artists ‘bootlegged’ promotional material creating hand painted film posters to promote film screenings. It was possible that the artists had never seen or knew little about the film, using, creative imagination, a naive style, and graphic interpretation with a clear mandate of making the film seem as exciting as possible. Gorier was better when it came to horror films. This hand painted process came about due to the military dictatorship of Ghana in the 70s and 80s that restricted importation of large scale off-set printing presses, a popular process for poster making at the time.


At first glance you may find Palace’s Horror Collection quite underwhelming as a sweeping survey of 80’s horror in its dated stylization, analogue effects and our cultural saturation of the genre that leads us on a journey where no taboo has been left unturned and you’re left waiting for an anticipated scare. Yet the collection becomes a microcosm of for all the facets of life and death, from teenage rites of passage, identity, memory, family and mortality. Bank’s ‘Palace Projects’ becomes a circulation of storytelling creating parallels between these aspects of life, although the project does not intend to create a nostalgic legacy, it explores correlations between network, distribution and piracy within the 21st century.


The rise and fall of British cinema in the 80s has an almost Newton’s third law likeness, following a linear path of cause and effect comparable to Kurt Vonnegut’s 'The Shape of a Stories' where he describes stories as having shapes that can be plotted on a graph. British cinema follows a similar parabola to Boy Meets Girl, where okay shifts to good that turns bad, which finally arrives at good but somewhere along the journey one of the lead protagonists will be in dire trouble, sadness, or in the story of Palace, bankruptcy.


The 1980s saw significant changes politically, socially, and economically that has molded society and culture in its broadest form as we see it today. Palace was a prevalent factor in the transformation of the British film industry in the 80s. By taking on creative challenges and developing film scripts that tackled political scandal and social iniquities of the era, their films defined the decade.


Bank’s uses Palace and their horror collection to articulate the relationship between social and cultural change, and explore how we distribute information in the 21st century where recommendation and collections have boiled down to a digital flurry viewed through a screen. We have become out of touch with storytelling in an age where explanation seems easier via mobile phones screens, than any ‘real’ interaction.


John Harris, 2016