The Complete Guide to Home Video* *(not really)

Written by David Lawler on 06/28/13

We got our first VCR in 1985.  RCA.  2-head.  Mono.  Sold for $500 retail.  But it was pure magic.  It was heavy as hell and made crazy, spinning noises when the drum started up.  The screen goes black and the FBI warning comes up.  We were so excited we were taping TV (we didn't have cable at that point), taping anything and then running it back. 

We got memberships at drug stores or participating electronics stores (no big rental stores back then) and the selection of movies was so small, we'd often rent and re-rent and re-re-rent titles to the point that I had all the dialogue memorized.  Favorites included "Stripes", "Meatballs", "Amadeus", "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure", "An American Werewolf in London", etc.

Some ten years later, we had Blockbuster (of which I was an employee and where I met my future wife; all my kid jobs were at video stores), RKO, Hollywood...all these chains, millions of titles, walls and walls of titles and then DVD happens and off we go!  The home video business started so small and it, like everything else in this country, became a billion-dollar industry.

So little faith was put in home video entertainment at the beginning that the larger motion picture companies leased their titles to small distribution outlets such as Magnetic Video and Key Video (both of which licensed films from 20th Century Fox and television companies).

Evidence suggests rentals were so popular by this time that Fox had quickly put together 20th Century Fox Video to release big ticket titles like "Quest for Fire", "The Omen", and "Star Wars" in unusually wide slipcases and marked for rental only.  This was the so-called "Fox Box", a strange slipcover keepsake case that would slide the encased tape out of the box from the spine.  It's next to impossible to find Foxboxes in pristine condition because of the constant action of opening and closing the case.


There were no sell-through titles at this stage in the game.  In fact, videos priced for sale did not become the standard until the Michael Jackson/John Landis "Making of 'Thriller'" release in 1983. Even "previously-viewed" tapes were not sold for clearance but rather sent back to the manufacturer and destroyed and new copies sent to rental houses (until savvy retailers realized the terms of their licenses did not explicitly make this a rule and started selling used rentals priced for sale). 


At the beginning of the 80's, Magnetic Video was dissolved and CBS/Fox took its place.  Key Video became a specialty division of CBS/Fox, releasing box sets and collections of tapes from prominent film directors like Woody Allen.  CBS/Fox was primarily a sell-through competitor to Warner Home Video and later MCA Home Video, Paramount Home Video, and RCA/Columbia Home Video (originally Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment).  Those were the major home video retailers. 

In many cases, big-time studio productions would be relegated to smaller video companies for distribution like Vestron Video.  Movies that were financed by several entities, co-produced by the studios, or given limited licensing rights were often carried in second and third releases by Lightning (Vestron) Video, Media Home Entertainment, and Goodtimes with bare-bones packaging, mediocre quality transfers and substandard audio.  I remember specifically Goodtimes had acquired a large portion of the Universal horror catalog and I dreaded having to turn the volume up to maximum just to hear the tape. 

The major home video retailers often had unique packaging and wildly-varying quality control.  Warner Home Video, in particular, appealed to film buffs releasing titles in big "gatefold" boxes and later clamshells with distinctive cover art and brief essays on the back covers.  Lesser-known, "sleeper", or "arthouse" releases were priced for sale while big box-office draws were priced for rental.  Warners had contracts with Roger Corman's AIP and Hammer, Orion and Filmways, bringing obscure and bizarre titles to wide distribution under the WCI imprint. 

RCA/Columbia Home Video had unusual full-boxed slipcases with tabs on the sides and bottoms, protecting the tapes, but causing enormous wear-and-tear because of the repeated practice of opening and closing the boxes.  The cover art was often embossed and the print quality was impeccable.  Paramount and MCA Home Video (and predecessor MCA Videocassette, Inc.) used traditional slipcovers made of a more durable card stock than either CBS/Fox or RCA/Columbia Home Video. 

Later, Warner Home Video would switch to slipcovers (to my dismay) citing the cost of manufacturing and (shockingly for the time - 1986) environmental concerns regarding the plastic used in the clamshell cases.


In those heady days, when internet was not available, books and magazines (with hilarious titles like THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO HOME VIDEO; there were so few titles available, you could fill a book with limited reference information on every release) were published, and were often the only source for current information about the home video market. 

The mid-eighties saw an explosion in video distribution, especially after VHS became the adopted standard and more rental stores began to pop up all over the country.  Those stores even had Betamax sections but they were the size of linen closets!  It could be argued that Sony took such a huge financial loss when JVC's admittedly inferior but more versatile VHS format usurped Betamax that the only way to break even and ultimately show a profit was to market sell-through tapes under the Columbia imprint.  Of course, they made a killing; enough to cement Sony's reputation in electronics, film, and music production.

So much has changed since those days.  Rental chains are dead; replaced by Netflix and other streaming services.  Prices have gone down.  Everything is priced for sale.  No more late fees.  No more rewinding fees.  No more tapes.  Everything was physical - getting up, going to the store, renting some tapes on a nice long weekend, and then dumping them in the box Monday morning.

In the uncomfortable days just before the dominance of the DVD format (when we had silly formats like VCD and D-VHS), VHS tried to compete by releasing movies in letterbox format, and the video stores would stock two versions of movies and then you'd get idiotic complaints about "defective" tapes because of the black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. 

I remember trying to explain to our customers that they were not, indeed, being ripped off but actually being given a lot more of the image than a standard pan & scan release could deliver, but TV screens were so small back that there was a surge of big screen CRT television sales; 30-inch plus screens and then DVDs were being manufactured with higher bit rates.

Comparing the distribution of VHS tapes to Betamax, DVD, Laserdisc, and Blu Ray, the majority of movies released in the last hundred years were reproduced for VHS video rental and sale.  Laserdisc was always considered a niche market for film enthusiasts because of the letterbox option and special features, and thus had a limited life.  Betamax ended very quickly in the States.  There are many titles not available on DVD, and Blu Ray is so cost-prohibitive, it's likely we'll never see really obscure titles in that format, and as more and more supposedly better formats are rolled out, a great many titles only available on VHS will simply disappear forever.

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