Monday, 29 April 2013

Dead Technology or How we came to love Clint Eastwood on the humble video cassette…

I recently read a feature by Robert Vaux on the internet. As I was planning to start a dedicated page on Clint Eastwood home video movies, I felt it served perfectly as a great introduction. It explains in simple terms, how the video cassette came to be such a phenomenon. For the younger generation it probably seems like something from the ark, but unless you were around in 1979-80, I can’t possibly begin to tell you how it changed our lives. As a kid growing up in the fabulous 70s, and a manic film fan from such an early age, I had to rely upon a brief film excerpt (in b/w and silent) on a 200ft spool that provided me with a breath-taking 9 minutes of flickering imagery. I’m referring of course to the Super 8mm film format. Trying to ignore the loud clattering sound that emanated from my projector, I was nevertheless transported to the private world of my own Cinema Paradiso.
Below: A Super 8mm cut down or digest version of Clint's High Plains Drifter, at the time, the only way to watch Clint at home.
In 1980 and at the age of 16, life was about to change with the introduction of the VHS and Betamax home video cassettes. For the first time, I was able to tape from a television, a WHOLE movie, in colour and with sound… The revolution had just begun!  
Below: The Ferguson 3V23, at the time, the most advanced (and first) front loading VHS Recorder on the market. I was reading an article on Michael Crawford in a magazine and spotted it in the background of a photo of his apartment. On checking it out, it came at a cost (£699). But I was serious about film and simply had to have it, even if it took me two years to pay off...
It was certainly a beautiful machine and lowering the front flap revealed an array of buttons including Dolby Noise Reduction. Unfortunately, it had a nasty habit of chewing up tape when the cassette was ejected? It also weighed a bloody ton!
Before revisiting the era in which we could (for the first time) actually buy and own  a Clint Eastwood library, here is that article from Robert Vaux:
VHS tapes have now largely gone the way of the dodo bird, but in their time, they were one of the most dominant forms of home entertainment in history. More than that, they engineered large-scale changes in America's social fabric, creating the notion of the neighbourhood video store and the concept of watching movies at home instead of in the theatres. Later formats such as DVD and Blu-ray utilized superior technology to vanquish the VHS, but they owe a huge debt to the path it helped pave.
Origins: VHS (or "Video Home System") tapes were a creation of the JVC Corporation, which developed them from a number of earlier video tape formats. Video cassette recorders had been around since 1956, but they were often very expensive and not widely available for commercial use. That changed in the 1970s, as the technology become cheap enough to offer to consumers. The VHS tape and VCR recorder were introduced in 1975, with a two-hour running time on most cassettes.
Fighting Betamax: VHS's biggest competitor in the early days was Betamax, a rival format developed by Sony. Betamax tapes had sharper resolution but could not run as long as VHS tapes. Furthermore, JVC was much looser with its licensing, allowing VHS to spread more rapidly than Betamax. By the early 1980s, VHS was outselling Betamax nearly 3 to 1, and it remained on top until Sony finally abandoned the Betamax format in 1988.
Uses: VHS tapes were popular because they allowed consumers to tape TV shows for later viewing. Before the arrival of the format, people needed to be at home in front of their TVs when a given show came on, and had to wait for the commercials before using the bathroom.
Movie Battles and Alliances: In the early days of the VHS, movie studios viewed the technology as a threat: enabling viewers to copy and keep films while skirting existing copyright laws. In 1981, however, the Supreme Court ruled that VHS VCRs were permitted for private use, and that the studios couldn't curtail the technology. It ultimately proved a boon for studios. By marketing movies in their library--either as movie rentals at the video store or for direct purchase by consumers--they opened up an entirely new form of revenue.

Slow Decline: VHS held sway over its domain for nearly two decades--an eternity by contemporary standards. DVDs finally rose to vanquish the format in the late 1990s. They provided a sharper picture than VHS tapes, they lasted longer because they lacked moving parts and their storage space allowed them to include extra features such as behind-the-scenes documentaries on their discs. (Earlier formats such as laser discs offered similar advantages, but they were much more expensive than DVDs.) As of 2009, no VHS manufacturers are still in business in the United States, lowering the curtain on the first act in the home video revolution.
Above: A very rare Video Sleeve from Norway, A Fistful of Dollars, date unknown.
Below: A Fistful of Dollars Netherlands, Video Film Express Concorde Video 911183, 1992
Above: Magnetic Video's opening Logo
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is the home entertainment division of 20th Century Fox when it was formed from Fox's acquisition of Magnetic Video Corporation, which had been distributing Fox titles on video. It was first known as "20th Century-Fox Video". In 1982, Fox teamed up with CBS to form "CBS/Fox Video", also launching two sub-labels; "Key Video" and "Playhouse Video", which both became inactive in 1991. CBS/Fox became "Fox Video" the same year, alternating with the CBS/Fox name until 1998, when Fox Entertainment Group acquired CBS's interest in CBS/Fox and was renamed under its current name as "20th Century Fox Home Entertainment" in 1995, alternating with the Fox Video name until 1998. Magnetic Video Corporation, a home video/audio duplication service established in 1968 by Andre Blay and based in Farmington Hills, Michigan. It was the first company to release theatrical motion pictures to home video for consumers in 1976, making special deals with companies including United Artists. In 1978 Fox purchased Magnetic Video from Blay, reincorporating it as "20th Century-Fox Video" in 1981. The earliest 20th Century Fox Video releases which included A Fistful of Dollars used the Magnetic Video logo. Probably because they were produced just before the disestablishment.
Below: A Fistful of Dollars, Fox Video (8710224) released in 1982 Farmington Hills Michigan. Twentieth Century-Fox Video (formerly Magnetic Video). The slip case box sleeve used the original U/A poster artwork.
Lots More to follow!

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