In 1933, in the Los Angeles area, viewers got a chance to watch a movie on TV. The Crooked Circle is a weird, campy detective flick about occultists, fakirs, and fakers. It doesn’t have much of a reputation, except for the fact that it starred a young Ben Lyon, a middling actor who went on to a career as a studio exec and is credited with discovering Marilyn Monroe.
But no, that wasn’t the interesting thing about it. What is really interesting about the movie is that it was on TV. Even though only a handful of people could watch it, it showed that it was possible to take the great movie palaces, America’s answer to the opera, and shrink it down into your home.
It wasn’t for another nearly 30 years, however, that watching movies at home became a real thing. On September 23rd, 1961, the first prime-time network movie was shown: How To Marry A Millionaire, starring Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and, of course, Marilyn Monroe. This was an enormous step. Movies could now be enjoyed in the privacy of your own home. While The Crooked Circle began the idea, it wasn’t until 1961 that the idea of watching movies by yourself – an idea that has culminated in streaming movies on our phones and tablets today – really began.
Betamax vs. VHS: The Tape Wars
For years, you could only watch movies on TV. Recording devices had been invented, but they were way too expensive to be bought by the general public. That changed in the 1970s, when Sony released the U-Matic, a clunky recording device that could be hooked up to a TV. This, of course, led to the mid-70s introduction of Betamax vs. VHS – the Videotape Format Wars (a precursor to the Cola Wars of the 80s, because marketing is everything). Sony released the first Betamax tape in 1975, followed a year later by JVC releasing the VHS. It was a difference of size and length. Betamax could only handle an hour, whereas VHS could do two. It was easy to see who was going to win, though Betamax lingered for awhile.
We take it for granted now, but this was the first chance consumers had to “time-shift” their programming, recording TV shows and movies to watch later. Folks who grew up in the 1980s likely had dozens of movies recorded off the TV, some of which are probably still somewhere in a dusty box.
Movies at Home
That wasn’t the only way to do so, of course. Studios finally saw a market for this and began releasing their movies onto tape to buy, and then to rent. That led to the explosion of video stores, which allowed for the new and satisfying ability to browse for a movie. You were no longer beholden to what was on TV or what was in the theaters. The choice was yours.
It’s surprising how long tapes lingered. I worked at Blockbuster when, in 1996, the first movie on DVD (Twister) came out. For as long as I worked there, which wasn’t much longer, DVDs and tapes were split fairly evenly, which is a sign of how quickly technology moved. For the first 60 years of film, the idea of watching a movie at home (unless you were a millionaire with a private theater) was ridiculous. Then the option was made available, but were bound to the TV schedule for another 15 years. The tape revolution, where you could actually decide what you wanted to watch and when, started in the 1970s, lasted through the film geek years, through the flattening suburbanization, and through the 80s popcorn boom, right up until 1996. Five years later, the idea of VHS tapes was downright ancient.
All this worked to change our expectation of what it meant to watch movies. It wasn’t exactly a revolt against the fat-cats of Hollywood or anything, but it created the desire for control. Essentially, it created a supply to fulfill a demand. This kind of demand made us expect to see movies when we wanted to and helped to pave the way for streaming services on your TV, computer, phone, or tablet. We went from having to go downtown to the picture show to being able to see the pictures wherever we were, at any time. Everyone was able to create their own theater, so to speak, and that wouldn’t have been possible without a little bit of tape.
Next week, we’ll take a look at what supplanted VHS, streaming services, and what is going to come next, including the surprising history of Laserdiscs, the forgotten shoulda-beens of the format wars.