Nostalgia 101: Before Home Video

June 16, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

This is the third in an open-ended series looking back at film-related subjects from 20-30 years ago.

These days, we have come to take it for granted that we can watch a beloved movie almost any time. If it's an older movie, it's probably available on DVD for sale or rental. If it's a new movie, it will be available on DVD only a few months after it leaves theaters. Sure, there are some more obscure titles that aren't accessible, but these represent a minority.

25 years ago, it was a different story. VCRs came into existence for home use in the 1970s, but they were not widely adapated until the mid-1980s. (The VHS vs. Betamax format war had something to do with this, as did the high cost of the players.) My father purchased his first VCR the year I went to college. During my high school tenure, I had only one friend with a VCR (Betamax), and he didn't get it until our senior year. In 1983, no one I knew had a home VCR. By 1987, nearly everyone in the neighborhood had taken the plunge. As VCR adoption grew, video stores started popping up everywhere. Enter the Blockbuster era.

But what about before the VCR? How did you re-capture the experience of watching a favorite movie without a copy at the ready to slip into a machine? For normal, middle-class people, there were four options, none of which was ideal. In those "old days," once a movie ended its theatrical run, it was all-but-forgotten. It's hard, I imagine, for anyone younger than 25 to relate.

The first, and most general, method for rewatching films was on TV. Successful theatrical films typically made it to network TV about three years after their intial movie house runs. In those days, movies of the week were a big deal. All the networks had them, bidding for top movies was fierce, and ratings were excellent. On some occasions, the TV version of the film contained scenes edited out of the theatrical release. NBC's King Kong (1976) and ABC's Superman were split over two nights, with more than 45 minutes of additional material added to both. ABC's Star Trek: The Motion Picture swelled to fill a 3 1/2 hour Sunday night time slot (8:00 until 11:30 pm ET). There were numerous other examples of this sort of thing. In addition, most stations also showed late night movies - older fare that could pull in an after prime time audience. Cable stations like HBO and Cinemax brought newer movies to the home faster than network TV. Still, while there were plenty of movies on TV, viewers were at the mercy of TV programmers. If you had a favorite film, it might - or might not - show up.

Many households had Super 8 mm movie projectors, so some studios released "mini" versions of popular films - eight-minute condensed (often without sound) highlights. In effect, these were little different than extended trailers. They were so disjointed that having previously seen the entire movie was mandatory for any degree of comprehension. But there was an undeniable element of magic in seeing those images unfold on a screen in a darkened room at home. A friend of mine had Star Wars and we would watch those silent minutes over and over.

The photonovel was a short-lived pheonomenon that achieved a degree of popularity in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since it was geared toward teen-agers, only movies that were popular with those in the 10-16 year-old age group received consideration as photonovels, and films that lived on in re-releases (like Star Wars) never achieved the treatment. A photonovel can best be described as a comic book-like adaptation of a movie, but with stills replacing artwork. The best photonovels told their stories using between 300-500 color photos. The worst were disjointed hack jobs. A photonovel for Star Trek II used only about 250 stills, and it was in black-and-white (to save printing costs). Even at the height of their popularity, photonovels were niche items, and I doubt there were more than 100 titles printed.

Finally, there was piracy, although it wasn't the same thing in 1980 as it is today. Piracy in those days meant audio recordings of movie soundtracks. If you loved a movie enough, you could bring a tape recorder and a bunch of cassettes into a theater, set it up on the seat next to you, and remember to switch tapes every 30 or 45 minutes. (90 minute cassettes were superior. They only had to be flipped/changed every 45 minutes, and didn't break or jam as often as the 120 minute variety.) Theoretically, you "snuck" in the tape recorder because it was (technically) illegal, but theaters didn't care. My audio library was limited to seven titles, six of which I made.

Today, all these things (except TV airing of movies) are obsolete. Yet I have an irrational fondness for such antiquated methods of enjoying films, even though I wouldn't want to go back to them. (There's no way I would exchange my DVD collection for a bunch of 8 mm movies, photonovels, and poor-quality audio tapes.) Strangely, though, one could make the argument that movies seemed to mean more when they were not as readily available.