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From Betamax to Blockbuster

From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video

Joshua M. Greenberg
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 228
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  • Book Info
    From Betamax to Blockbuster
    Book Description:

    The first video cassette recorders were promoted in the 1970s as an extension of broadcast television technology--a time-shifting device, a way to tape TV shows. Early advertising for Sony's Betamax told potential purchasers "You don't have to miss Kojak because you're watching Columbo." But within a few years, the VCR had been transformed from a machine that recorded television into an extension of the movie theater into the home. This was less a physical transformation than a change in perception, but one that relied on the very tangible construction of a network of social institutions to support this new marketplace for movies. In From Betamax to Blockbuster, Joshua Greenberg explains how the combination of neighborhood video stores and the VCR created a world in which movies became tangible consumer goods. Greenberg charts a trajectory from early "videophile" communities to the rise of the video store--complete with theater marquee lights, movie posters, popcorn, and clerks who offered expert advice on which movies to rent. The result was more than a new industry; by placing movies on cassette in the hands (and control) of consumers, video rental and sale led to a renegotiation of the boundary between medium and message, and ultimately a new relationship between audiences and movies. Eventually, Blockbuster's top-down franchise store model crowded local video stores out of the market, but the recent rise of Netflix, iTunes, and other technologies have reopened old questions about what a movie is and how (and where) it ought to be watched. By focusing on the "spaces in between" manufacturers and consumers, Greenberg's account offers a fresh perspective on consumer technology, illustrating how the initial transformation of movies from experience into commodity began not from the top down or the bottom up, but from the middle of the burgeoning industry out.Joshua M. Greenberg is Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship at the New York Public Library.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-27428-9
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    You probably remember your first video store.

    If you’re older than a certain age, it was a smallish space jammed with shelves, with movie posters on the walls and a membership club you had to join. Whether a storefront in a suburban strip mall or a below-ground space on a city street corner, you probably knew the owner by name, and he or she likely knew your taste in movies. Odds are that the shelves were lined with empty videocassette boxes that would be exchanged at the counter for tapes in dark plastic cases, and you might have been able...

  5. 1 Videophiles and Betamania: Hacking the VCR
    (pp. 17-40)

    “This is madness.”

    The first image on the old, hand-shot videotape is a young man named Art Vuolo, who is holding a microphone and wearing a t-shirt that reads “I look better on videotape (really).” Dozens of voices in the background laugh and make wisecracks. Art, barely holding back a laugh himself, tells the crowd to “hold it down.”¹

    “It’s Fremont, Ohio, 1979. This is probably the most bizarre thing that yours truly has ever witnessed, and in the next couple of minutes, or however long this runs until we are removed from tape or we disintegrate the heads, I’d...

  6. 2 ʺHollywood in a Boxʺ: Reconstructing Videotapes as Transparent Media
    (pp. 41-62)

    In the early 1980s, an apocryphal story made the rounds among video storeowners concerning a hapless customer who brought his VCR back to the store where he’d purchased it a year earlier, complaining that it had stopped working. The storeowner looked it over, wondering if there had been some mechanical failure, but found none. Upon ejecting the videocassette currently in the deck, the storeowner found that it had been played and recorded over so many times that the magnetic tape had worn to the point of snapping. Handing the customer the tape, the storeowner asked if all of his tapes...

  7. 3 Retailers
    (pp. 63-80)

    Alongside the construction of prerecorded videotapes as content rather than technology, retailers began to literally and figuratively construct the spaces in which these movies and other programs might be sold. The distribution network that would bring movies and other prerecorded videocassettes from producers to retailers had been established, but it was by no means obvious how to make that final leap into the hands of consumers. As the video industry initially began to move away from the brown goods stores, it wasn’t clear where exactly it was going to end up.

    When Ruth Cowan writes about the “consumption junction,” she...

  8. 4 Movie Culture in the Video Store and at Home
    (pp. 81-96)

    As the video store became more of a phenomenon in its own right, owners increasingly designed their stores to reflect the cultural norms and expectations surrounding the movie industry.¹ Most retailers, schooled by their distributors to see their wares as movies rather than cassettes, built or adapted their stores to embody the technological frame of the VCR, essentially creating a movie theater in the home. While this general theme dated back to the earliest video stores (recall the marquee lights and directors’ chairs that decorated Arthur Morowitz’s Video Shack), store owners continued to co-opt the rhetoric of the movie theater,...

  9. 5 Retailers, Employees, and Consumers
    (pp. 97-114)

    If a VCR owner from the year 2005 found herself transported back to a video store circa 1982, she would likely find the space remarkably familiar: videocassette cases lining the walls, a movie playing on a television set, maybe some marquee lights framing an announcement board over the checkout counter—all in all, not terribly unlike the video store of two and a half decades later.

    However, understanding this consumption junction simply as a transactional space in which money is exchanged for goods and services misses the forest for the trees. That same time-traveling video renter might find herself startled...

  10. 6 Building Closure Around Video (Stores)
    (pp. 115-130)

    One of the biggest questions in any history of technology is how the cacophony of different uses and meanings for a new technology settles down to one stable technological frame. In canonical studies of bicycles, Bakelite, light bulbs, automobiles, and other technologies, scholars have described a trajectory from the flourishing interpretive flexibility of a new technology to the eventual (albeit sometimes temporary) black-boxing of a specific understanding of its meaning and use.¹

    If you accept the general tenets of the social construction of technology, particularly the argument that knowledge of what a technology is good for and how it should...

  11. 7 The Thin Line Between Movie and Technology
    (pp. 131-148)

    This book has mainly focused on the story of video stores, but what of the movies themselves? One might read the narrative I’ve laid out and assume that movies as a form remained relatively unchanged by entering this new retail space and new medium, but this was not the case. While Fred Wasser has persuasively argued that the rise of video directly impacted thekindsof movies that get made, I want to briefly shift gears, into a more media studies mode of analysis, examining what happened to the actual form of movies as texts once translated onto video.¹


  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 149-160)

    By the end of the 1980s, it was becoming painfully clear that while the general population seemed to understand theconceptof using the VCR to time shift broadcast television, the vast majority of VCR owners claimed an inability to actually do so. The first print reference to this sort of technological incompetence appears in a 1988 review of a Los Angeles stand-up comedian, a “stereotypical football-playing, beer-swilling frat boy” who asked the crowd, “Any guys want to confess to me tonight they can’t program the VCR? … If I want to record something that starts at 9 p.m., I...

  13. Appendix: Notes on the Website
    (pp. 161-164)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 165-200)
  15. Index
    (pp. 201-214)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 215-218)