The Evolution of Home Theater – Big Tech of the Small Screen

Once Upon A Time

In our world of Vimeo, YouTube, Netflix and Hulu – virtually anything you want to see is just a click away. Never before has so much content been available to so many with such ease. So as we begin our journey, winding back the clock to the beginning of the previous century, we have to imagine a different time and a different relationship to media.

Movies began in the Nickelodeon – a term that mashed up the word nickel and odeon –  a Greek word for a theater for musical performances. For just five cents, audiences could be entertained with a variety of short films and live acts. Nickelodeons were a major part of the American culture – with an estimated 8,000 Nickelodeons in the US by 1908 and 26 million regular attendees by 1910.
Nickelodeon Interior


But as quickly as Nickelodeons exploded on the American conscious – they quickly went away. As a network of film distribution came into place theaters found that Audiences tended to favor the feature length film and you didn’t need the live vaudeville acts. Of course, the longer films were more expensive to make. Prices for admission necessarily skyrocketed – doubling to 10 cents but now you were seeing feature films with a couple of shorts made with great skill and craft  in a much more elegant setting – the mindset of the time demonstrated by this ad from 1915 from a small unknown upstart – Paramount Pictures. Here, casting off the old dingy Nickelodeon of the past for the new Paramount Pictures Movie Palace.


So for a generation or two, movies were something you got out of the house and went to. Only the rich collectors had home movie projectors and private collections of films were mostly scraps, interesting bits from films here and there to show off to their friends at dinner parties.

Even the filmmakers themselves saw little value in their films once the screenings were done. Part of the problem was the inherit danger of storing old film. Nitrate film was used at that time, which was extremely flammable – it would even burn underwater. And as the stuff decayed, it turned into essentially gunpowder leading to some famous unfortunate accidents such as the fire in 1937 at 20th Century-Fox Studios which wiped out all their pre-1935 film stock.

The fact was studios just needed the storage space for new films more than they needed the archvies so they just destroyed old films. An estimated 90% of all silent films ever made are considered lost and gone forever.

Television: The Destroyer and Savior of Film

Even though Television had been invented and regular public broadcasts started by the BBC as early as 1929, the Great Depression and World War II prevented TV from becoming an everyday household appliance until the late 1940s. But Television became a great mass produced product as the economy turned from Guns to Butter in the post war years. And the American Public served as a great consumer base the Baby boom shifted populations away from the cities and into surburbia. TV was an easy and free delivery tool of entertainment straight into the home.

Movie theater attendance plummeted dropping 50% from 1946 to 1955.. At first the movie studios tried to get in on the TV action but the FCC was hesitant to hand broadcasting licenses to movie companies that had just lost a Supreme Court anti-trust lawsuit in 1948 over their anti-competition practices in dealing with theaters. Instead, it was the radio broadcasters, CBS, NBC, ABC, who got in on the Television game.

So immediately Hollywood saw TV as head on competition and they responded by entrenching themselves and refusing to sell rights for movies for broadcast and forbidding their stars to appear on the new electronic medium. The numbers were grim, tickets sales were down, productions slowed to a crawl and the studios levied heavy layoffs. At the close of the 40s, it looked like Hollywood was about to implode with TV laying down the final straw.

But out of challenge comes innovation. To compete with Television, the clever filmmakers changed tack and focused on what they could do better – spectacle. Widescreen aspect ratios, first popularized by Cinerama in 1952 and Cinemascope in 1953, Stereo and multichannel sound, Larger screens going from 30 foot to 50 foot screens, Full Adoption of color, and even the first wave of 3D – many of the aspects of our modern film experience began as a way to get people away from their homes and into the theatre.

Cinerama Schematic

Diagrama of Cinemerama Projection

But Film’s little brother of Television had grander aspirations and still wanted to be in the movies. Broadcasters had a lot of time to fill – why not show an old movie and sell ad space. And for the newer, leaner Hollywood which grew out of the devastation of the late 40s, TV wasn’t seen so much as competition but a new revenue stream, with studios beginning to sell rights to television as early 1956. Then On September 23, 1961, NBC premiered Saturday Night at the Movies – featuring the 1953 film How to Marry a Millionaire starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable.

Broadcast in “Living Color” How To Marry A Millionaire was the second film to be made in widescreen Cinemascope. Unfortunately for viewers at the time, the film was severely panned and scanned – the process of zooming in and lopping off the sides of the image in order to fill a 4:3 screen with a portion of the original 2.35 image – this wrecks havoc of the original compositions – often losing actors who are positioned on the edges of the screen. Regardless, Saturday Night at the Movies led to countless spinoffs from all the broadcasters – practically one for each night of the week.

The studios had found value in their old catalogs and Television had found relatively cheap content to fill time. But most importantly, a major social shift was occurring – the idea that now you could stay home and catch a movie – an idea that would cement itself in the world’s conscious with the introduction of tape.

The Tape Empire and Digital Successors

Video tape for professional broadcast use was invented by the Ampex Corporation in 1956 but the machines and tape reels were far too expensive for personal use. Consumer electronics would catch up starting in 1970 when Sony released the U-matic, a system designed for home use that recorded onto bulky ¾” tapes. This was followed by the short lived Cartrivision in 1972. Then came the big two and the famous format war: In 1975 the Sony BetaMax followed a year later by JVC’s  VHS in 1976.

Sony Betamax 1975

Sony Betamax 1975


Victor VHS Player

Victor VHS Player

Now the technological stage was set for watching movies at home on demand… But studios didn’t realize the potential market yet…

When tape was originally sold to consumers – it was as a way for viewers to “time shift” their favorite TV programs – recording shows to be watched later – Cartrivision had dabbled in a rental system with movies on prerecorded tapes but the company folded soon after their launch so nothing came of it. There just didn’t seem to be any thought of actually selling movies on tape. That changed in 1977 when Andrew Blay of Magnetic Video convinced a financially struggling 20th Century Fox to license 50 of their titles to be released on prerecorded BetaMax and VHS tapes.

Blay’s company took off and the film video tape market was born sparking off the video rental industry. At first, Hollywood assumed people were only interested in renting films. But it didn’t take long for studios to realize there was some serious money to made in stocking up people’s personal video libraries. Distributors cut the prices of video tapes from $80 a piece which were priced to sell to rental houses down to $19.95 and below and saw huge increases in sales. In 1980, Walt Disney got into the business dipping into their catalog of family films. The venture was so successful 20th Century Fox turned around and even acquired Andrew Blay’s company Magnetic Video and reorganized it into 20th Century Fox video in 1980 which merged with CBS Video another giant in 1982 to become CBS Fox Video. The Video Market was big big business.

Not long after VHS hit the market came the first commercially successful optical disk format – the LaserDisc originally marketed as the MCA DiscoVision in 1978. Still an analog format but superior in many ways to VHS tape, LaserDisc was a big hit with cinephiles.

Unfortunately LaserDisc never really did get a foothold in North America – The extra costs of the players and the LaserDisc themselves meant that market penetration never rose above 1% of households despite the perceivable quality advantage.

The next breakthrough for home media would have to wait for computers and compression to bring digital to video. In 1993, roughly 10 years after the release of the audio CD, Philips introduced the VCD – using a new digital compression called MPEG-1 to compress movie titles to fit onto two discs. VCDs enjoyed a brief window of success until Hollywood realized these VCDs were really easy to pirate – MPEG1 had no copy protection whatsoever.

Luckily in 1995 an alternative came in the DVD.

Introduced by Philips, Sony, Toshiba and Panasonic, The DVD used MPEG2 compression on an optical disk which was roughly the same size as the popular audio CD. With MPEG-2 Compression capable of storing video, multiple audio tracks and extras – the DVD did what Laserdisc couldn’t and quickly became the preferred method of distributing movies for the home. But as our story progresses, the time scale gets more and more compressed as DVDs, once king of home entertainment would bow out to High Definition and digital delivery in only a decade.

High Def and Home Theaters

High Definition is the first format to begin bringing a real cinematic experience into the home. There were many experiments in HiDefinition in decades past but it was digital that enabled the transmission of a higher resolution signal. HDTV as outlined in ITU-R Recommendation ITU-R BT.709-2 in 1990 – sported a maximum resolution of 1920×1080 – a major departure from the 640x480ish standard def resolution. Also new was the introduction of a new 16×9 aspect ratio. 16×9 or 1.78 as a decimal was derived as a geometric mean between old Academy 4×3 (1.33) and the wide Scope aspect ratio of 2.40. This 16×9 aspect ratio was a compromise – a way in which images pillared box to to 4×3 or letterboxed to 2.40 would both get the roughly the same number of pixels: 1.5 Megapixels of the 2.1 Megapixels in an HD image.

With HDTV standards in place, Surround sound, HD streaming over the internet, and Bluray discs (released in 2006 and went on to win a much publicized but relatively short and uneventful format war with HD-DVD in 2008) you had the elements necessary to create a really great Home Theater Experience that were certainly miles ahead of turn of century nickelodeons and movie houses..

But for those that want full big screen experience at home, home digital projector is the way to go. Unfortunately with the HD 16×9 compromise, the films that Hollywood created to have the largest, most immersive feel – those shot in the scope 2.40 aspect ratio – end up being the smallest content on a 16:9 screen, framed by black letterbox bars that are essentially wasted projection. Fortunately there’s a optical solution from a company called Panamorph.

Working in the same fashion as a cinemascope anamorphic lens, Panamorph system uses the projector’s scaler feature to stretch the image vertically and eliminate the black letterbox bars – this utilizes the full power and resolution of the projector. Then a specially engineered Panamorph anamorphic lens goes in front of the projector stretches out the projection to a 2.40 aspect ratio restoring the correct screen geometry. This process results in projections that are 33% wider and 80% larger without sacrificing picture quality, and a true recreation of the filmmaker’s intent creating that big immersive feel right in the home. A clever use of tried and true technology to solve new digital challenges.


We’ve taken films out of the cineplex and brought them into our homes and even our very own pockets. The media rich culture of today may not even be recognizable compared with the early days of home VCRs let alone the pioneers of filmmaking. The fact is, changes in technology have inherently changed our relationship to film. The story of cinema is a story of and unrelenting change. Even as we speak, we’re entering another radical shift with digital distribution – no one really knows how the cards will fall. It’s going to be challenging times of course, but with all great challenges, comes great opportunities. Now more than ever, is the time to go out there and make something great.


The Evolution of Home Theater - Big Tech of the Small Screen QUIZ