Homegrown video company finds success with British base
Oct. 25, 2002
C. Benjamin Ford * Staff Writer


John Lorenz (left), executive vice president, and Peter Edwards, founder and president of Acorn Media, distribute collectible home videos, specializing in British dramas and comedies.

When Peter Edwards began his video distribution company in 1984, he ran it from the basement of his home "complete with barking dog in the back yard."

From the former NBC newsman's distribution of one self-produced video documentary, that company has grown into a 30-person operation with offices in Silver Spring, London and Minnesota.

Acorn Media has become a boutique publisher and distributor of collectible home videos, specializing in British dramas and comedies since the late 1990s, said executive vice president John Lorenz.

Acorn's DVD release of British spy thriller "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" has drawn rave reviews from such newspapers as the Sacramento Bee and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"We've found targeting quality programming to niche markets could work," said Edwards, Acorn Media's president and founder.

Edwards began the company with a single documentary he wrote and produced on Jamestown and Williamsburg called "Cavaliers and Craftsmen." When he could not find a distributor for it, he distributed it himself.

After that, he did a documentary on the historical plantations of Virginia, featuring Mount Vernon and Monticello.

When the Book of the Month Club's video catalog featured the second, Edwards realized he could make a go of distribution. He found business partners and arranged bank financing.

Edwards' next step was quitting his job as a unit manager for the Washington bureau of NBC's Nightly News in 1987.

"I realized the stakes had increased," Edwards said. "When it became a full-time job, the level of income was pretty small. It was the classic tale of living on credit cards and from hand to mouth."

Lorenz joined from PBS and helped get the business, then called Atlas Media, into the licensing of movies and television programs.

Lorenz said the company has been able to broaden into new genres such as science fiction while remaining independent.

"In many ways we're a counter-trend story," Edwards said. "Organic growth has been vital to our success."

The company has managed to keep distribution rights to the BBC and other British producers by having built a good track record with them over the years.

For "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy," the company filed an interview with author John le Carre to talk about his thoughts on the adaptation of his book.

Before "The Forsyte Saga," a British drama currently on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre," went into production, Acorn purchased the distribution rights to that, too.

Edwards said the company stays in close contact with customers as well as the people who make and sell television programs in Britain, which helps them pick the winners.

Not all of Acorn's releases have been successful. When the company carried wildlife documentaries, it discovered they did not sell well. The same was true of Holocaust documentaries, which the company said it was proud to offer.

"At some point we realized we're in the entertainment business," Lorenz said.

Acorn is not, however, in the business of distributing the latest theatrical releases. Rather, the company looks to obtain the rights to movies and programs that will have an audience for years.

"'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' aired only once or twice in 1981 and people are still talking about it," Lorenz said. "That fits into our mold of collectible. We're looking at things holding up over time, that people will want to hold onto or give as a gift. The word classic is overused, but if it is something that has staying power it does fit." * *