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The challenge of the VHS tape has now morphed into the challenge of streaming

Movie delivery platforms

The question at Hollywood Reporter: When should a movie production go into theaters and when should it just go to paid streaming? ("Hollywood's New Dilemma: When Is a Movie Worthy of Movie Theaters?")

The new vocabulary: "theatricality" meaning the ability to compel a viewer to see it on a big screen versus waiting until the (mildly) interesting offering makes its way onto home TV screens.

This is an old question, refreshed by the internet:

When VHS first appeared as a viable consumer electronic item (meaning at a price that the middle class could afford) around 1982 or so, there were many theoretical ideas floating about releasing new films into theaters and into home video at the same time, the idea being that studios could recoup costs and make profits with a double-whammy approach to the moviegoer.

These experiments finally yielded to the flood of "mom-and-pop" video stores that made for a loose-network that demanded rental versions of new films that had already made their way through theater release. For the privilege of getting it first with a window of a month or two before the consumer-grade tape would be released to Walmart and other stores, video rental shops paid substantially higher prices, often a rental version tape would cost over $100 per copy for a popular movie. The challenge for the rental shop then was to rent that tape as often as possible, hence in the early days the usual policy of overnight rentals on releases was instituted.

That pioneer network of small-time entrepreneurs renting out tapes (and tape machines, too, since the machines were still rather expensive. I bought a Radio Shack VHS machine in 1983 for $425, and that was the discounted price as a new model had just come out. The equivalent cost in 2020 would be $1,100) finally was swallowed up by chain stores like the now defunct Blockbuster.

VHS (and Betamax) tape finally segue-wayed into DVDs, then HD Blu Ray, and now here we are at streaming over the internet, and the question has returned: can Hollywood reap profits by going straight to the home screen?

In the 1950s, the same question arose, whether releases to theaters could coincide with premieres, that advertising could possibly compensate for the loss in tickets for theatre seats. The eventual answer was theaters first, then the tiny "twonky" in the living room.

This revolving dilemma for the old fashioned "movie show" at a Bijou seems to center on something that the Hollywood showman, generation afer generation, can't quite dissect: why is sitting in the dark in a room with strangers watching a pretend story with actors pretending to be people that they aren't so compelling? And why does that experience trump sitting in a lighted living room with family, with interruptions for the convenience of snack breaks, bathrooms, conversation with the other viewers, and the onslaught of portable digital worlds on phones and tablets?



Original Page April 2020


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