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.
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 1920x1080 - a major departure from the 640x480ish standard def resolution. Also new was the introduction of a new 16x9 aspect ratio. 16x9 or 1.78 as a decimal was derived as a geometric mean between old Academy 4x3 (1.33) and the wide Scope aspect ratio of 2.40. This 16x9 aspect ratio was a compromise - a way in which images pillared box to to 4x3 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.
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.