The incredible disposable movie
I often wonder what it was like to have been a fan of movies before the advent of home video? I’m of the generation who was born just before things like VHS and Betamax became ubiquitous in the early 1980s, but I don’t really remember what it was like when movies had to be seen on the big screen or not at all. For most of its existence movies were this ethereal thing, that could be seen once or twice on the big screen in a theater before they’d vanish forever.
It would have been perfectly normal for my grandparent’s generation to see a movie like King Kong in the theater and never expect that they’d ever see that film again. And for myself living in a time where movies are so common they’re disposable — they’re on network TV, pay cable, pay streaming service, free streaming service and available to buy digitally online — to think that I might not be able to see a movie within a few minutes of that notion popping into my head is completely alien.
Before home video, if someone were a fan of movies they’d have to actually go to the theater to see films — any film, not just new ones. Years ago older, popular movies used to return to theaters every few years or so since that was the only way to see them. I remember seeing the first Star Wars in the theaters, but in 1979 when it was re-released before The Empire Strikes Back. Sometimes movies would turn up on network TV a year or so after they were in theaters, but even then they’d air a few times at most with commercials. And since there was no way to record the showing if you missed it, if you were out doing something the night NBC aired Superman you missed Superman and might not see it again for years.
Talking with people a bit older than me, they have memories of scouring the TV guide looking for things to watch. Sometimes what they wanted to see might only air once late at night. Which meant they’d have to balance how much they wanted to see the movie with how much sleep they wanted to get. Now I can’t claim to have ever done that, but I do have memories of seeing the movie Alien was airing some random night and making sure that I was in front of the TV at a particular time to see it. I also remember that for the longest time it was really hard to see the original Star Wars movies. I believe you could rent them, but they really weren’t available to own for years after VHS became popular. And since I was, am and always will be a Star Wars nut I’d watch them whenever one of the networks aired them on TV as some special event.
Nowadays, if some odd or strange movie is airing on cable some night I can easily set my DVR to record it so that I can watch it delayed at 7PM the next day rather than live at 1AM. And while I’d argue that this is better than what people had to go through years ago to see movies I think this has intrinsically changed what movies are and what they mean to people. I don’t hear many people talking about their favorite movies anymore, or movies that affected them in one way or another Now, movies are a commodity and are treated as such by the public. While I think certain movies can affect people in certain ways, I don’t think that people see movies as anything special anymore. Bored? Search thousands of movies on Netflix to quell that boredom. Got nothing to do tonight, go see the latest Batman down at the cineplex or wait a few months until it’s available on-demand.
Today it’s harder for me to find movies that aren’t available in some form than ones that are. In fact, the other day I went looking for some Japanese anime to buy via digital download and found they weren’t available there which was totally odd since just about every movie ever released these days is. And it’s not like those movies aren’t available to buy on DVD or Blu-ray, they are, they just weren’t instantaneously there for me to see.