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It used to seem like the VCR might kill movies

As the VCR was adopted by households across North America, the film industry was watching nervously.

Sale of videocassettes for home viewing eclipsed box office in 1985

The film industry isn't sure whether to see the VCR as a friend or an enemy. 2:01

As the VCR was adopted by households across North America, the film industry was watching nervously. 

In May 1986, the technology — which allowed users to watch prerecorded tapes or make home recordings of TV broadcasts — was being adopted by an estimated 1 million households per month in North America. 

"This virtual explosion of VCR sales has had some major effects," said the CBC's John Kalina, reporting from Hollywood for The Journal.  

Not just for the big screen

Kalina visited the set of Wisdom, a movie written by, directed by and starring Emilio Estevez.

Almost as many people were expected to see the new Emilio Estevez movie on videocassette as in theatres. (The Journal/CBC Archives)

It was aimed "squarely" at Hollywood's prime youth market — and according to recent research, almost half that market would be watching it on home video.

"And so the people who run Hollywood are looking to see," said Kalina. "Is the VCR a friend, or is it an enemy?" 

Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, wasn't making any predictions.

"I don't think anybody could tell you ... whether or not the intrusion of the VCR will have a cataclysmic or a beneficent effect on the movie business," he said.

Four years earlier, he seemed to lean to the "cataclysmic" side, when he compared the VCR to a serial killer in testimony before the U.S. Congress.

Find more at the video store

Viewers can enjoy instructional videos and TV-as-fireplace, and the pay TV business is concerned about competition. 2:51

One thing was certain: the video store business was booming. And people weren't just renting and buying Hollywood movies.

"You can plunk in a cassette and work out with Jane Fonda, Mr. T or even Mickey Mouse," said Kalina, as the camera scanned the shelves at a Tower Video store in Los Angeles. "You can finally learn how to appreciate wine."

There were also explainer videos to show how to cook with a chef or babyproof the home, and a way to transform a TV into a fireplace.

Kalina asked the store's marketing manager, Joe Medwick, if anyone ever bought the instant fireplace video. Sure, he sad. 

"Actually, the one that's real big of that line is the aquarium," said Medwick. "Put the fish on."

Pay TV: frenemies with the VCR

The silver screen wasn't the only one feeling threatened by the new technology.

"Combined with your VCR, you can enjoy what you want to see, when you want to see it," was the new pitch from pay TV in 1986. (The Journal/CBC Archives)

Pay TV companies, which had started up in Canada more than three years earlier, initially regarded movie theatres as their competition. 

But they came to realize they had a common opponent in the VCR, and responded with ads that highlighted the hassle of renting from a video store.

"We launched pay television in this country just as  the boom of the videocassette rental was just coming in," said Fred Klinkhammer, president of First Choice Superchannel. "And it certainly damaged us in the early days."

But pay TV took a softer stance when it became clear there might be a complementary place for the VCR.

Klinkhammer was betting that VCR buyers would rent a lot of videos at first before the novelty of the machine wore off, then start using it in conjunction with pay TV.

"Over a period of time, you become less a heavy renter, and are much more likely then to become a pay television subscriber."