05 July 2010

From Betamax to Blockbuster

Until about six months ago when I was writing a research paper on VHS and home video, I hadn’t considered including book reviews on Lost Video Archive, but several of the resources I used seemed particularly well suited to inclusion here. I believe that films are historical mirrors of their contexts, and as such, understanding how film changes, even technologically, builds a more holistic understanding of those contexts. The development of home video as a viable commercial enterprise was much more complicated than just putting it on shelves for people to buy. It required a fundamental restructuring of the way studios marketed their product, and how the public viewed movies as a cultural artifact. The creation of home video basically rearranged the entire cultural construction of what movies were. Instead of experiences, they became objects, instead of memories and stories they became possessions. It is a history that can be told from any number of subjective points of view, but Joshua Greenberg focuses on one forgotten aspect. Because all of us as consumers are familiar with the retail rental store, that aspect has received lots of attention. Greenberg’s book From Betamax to Blockbuster bridges an important gap between studio and rental outlet/consumer.

His subheading may be “Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video”, but his narrative is primarily concerned with the juncture between studio film makers and the public. Making a successful business out of home video required the creation of a whole new marketing and sale structure, e.g. middlemen. As Greenberg sees it, distributors were instrumental in communicating the public desire for content back to a reluctant film industry. Studios were reluctant to let go of the pay-per-view royalties that were associated with theater and television screenings and set up all kinds of schemes to try and prevent permanent sales of their product on video.

By the end of From Betamax to Blockbuster, (and as this blog attests) the studios got on board with the idea of “home video,” and the product took off. While I would have enjoyed a more in depth discussion of the studio perspective, and it would have made the book better, I understand that Greenberg was intentionally restricting his narrative. Even with its limited scope the book covers a great deal of history that I had never considered, and as such it was a great read and a must have for any serious videophile or movie historian.

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