The Death Knell Of The Film [Reel] Industry
It was a lovely 7th of June, 1975, when the evil corporation from Japan launched their answer to the reel-to-reel. They called their new contraption, Betamax. With its inception, the VCR took flight, signaling the eventual demise of all things film. Then, only a year later, VHS played the Betamax machine.
Alright, so that was a little dramatic. Sony isn’t evil, and frankly, Film had it coming. What nobody saw coming was the ensuing battle for the format, the diehard collector weirdos, and the eventual demise of all formats.
For a minute, though, home entertainment took a sharp right turn.
Home Entertainment History
Before VCRs, film Buffs had reel-to-reel recorders and players. If one enjoyed a movie at home, he either learned the intricacies of a projector or made friends with someone who did.
Loading a film into a projector was not easy. Assuming one could thread that needle, the film itself was problematic. It broke. Parts failed. The film burned. Bulbs failed.
It was more time spent troubleshooting than movie-watching.
Also, finding movies wasn’t as easy as hitting the Redbox. More often than not, what one watched was Uncle Elwin’s footage of the family reunion. For the tenth time. Yay.
Televisions were begging for something better. Betamax was the answer.
Watch Whatever Whenever
That was the campaign for the VCR. It promised so much. There would be no more fumbling with reels of film. Betamax contained all the film in an enclosed cassette of magnetic tape.
To play a cassette, one placed it in the recorder, closed the door, then pressed play. The Betamax player did all the rest, everything but rewind the tape when the credits rolled.
The name Betamax came from the Japanese word used to describe how they recorded the tapes, beta. It also approximated the course of the tape in the player, the Greek letter beta or β.
The max part of Betamax was obvious. This was maximum technology… for 1975. For the first year of Betamax, it really was.
Bitter Beta Battles
Only one year after Sony unleashed Beta into the world, their rival JVC released the VHS format. Consumers like VHS for a couple of reasons. The tapes were a bit larger so they could hold more data. The VHS format was also cheaper, albeit inferior by the argument of Betamax enthusiasts.
If that weren’t enough, Betamax also suffered legal action from the movie industry. The court case of Sony Corp v. Universal City Studios went all the way to the supreme court.
For the first time in history, one could copy movies. It was easy to set up two Betamax recorders then dub movies to sell on the black market.
There’s no doubt this happened and still happens in perpetuity with newer formats. Everyone knows it’s illegal, but we give ourselves a pass for stealing intellectual property. It doesn’t feel the same as swiping an item from the store.
Much like the record industry, the film industry was up against so much more in the long run. The Supreme Court ruled for Sony. In the end, it was a point for Sony, but the end of the game for the entertainment industry.
Format Formula Fluctuations
Arguing the sides of the intellectual right battle is beyond this blog. History has spoken.
Had the film industry won, we may not have witnessed Laserdisc or DVD, which were both superior to the old VCR technology. That was, until Bluray came along, which was so much better than DVD until [insert: favorite digital format] came along.
Today, hardware formats are becoming a thing of the past, but not the distant past. Sony sold Betamax players until 2002. They only stopped making cassettes in 2016.
Sony even has their own studios now, opened in 1987, putting them right next to Universal with concerns over intellectual piracy.
Don’t forget. There was a time when all of this was necessary. There were fewer than five major networks deciding what we would like based partially on Nielsen ratings, but also crummy politics.
The Betamax was our first chance to say, “no thanks.” It was the beginning of customized programming and eventual broadening [read: improvement, unless we’re talking about reality TV] of televised entertainment.
For that, we can all thank Sony.