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Surviving Cinema - 'Nothin' Like The First Time - Part 2 Of 2'

This is continued from my last blog about "first times".  Get the setup here. Now on with the show… My next "first" came with the commencement of home video.  I believe the first movie I saw on a television that was not broadcast (or edited for TV) was Airplane (1980) on the RCA "SelectaVision" VideoDisc format.  I watched Airplane at my friend Scott's house, and to the best of my memory, this was my one and only RCA VideoDisc experience.  The VideoDisc format was a dismal failure.  RCA lost about $600 million developing and marketing the format.

Betamax tapes, a rival format from Sony, were lurking around too.  This format was also unpopular.  I have never watched anything on Betamax, though I do remember that the format hung on by its fingernails for years, usually occupying a small shelf at the video store, off to the side, in the shadows, so as not to obstruct renters' view of the almighty VHS tapes.  VHS (Video Home System) was a format from JVC that eventually conquered VideoDiscs and Betamax.  VHS would reign supreme for two decades, eventually dying gracefully as DVD stepped in to dominate home video.

The first film I saw on the VHS format was at my friend Dennis's house, just before my family moved to Pittsburgh.  Dennis was my first grade-school buddy to have this new technology in his home.  My memory is a bit foggy here, but I believe my first VHS experience was Clash Of The Titans (1981) followed by The Road Warrior (1981) and Star Wars (1977) on his family's big top-loading deck.

I have a very, very foggy memory when it comes to my first cable TV movie-watching experience.  I want to say it was First Blood (1982).  My family never had cable in the house, and it took my parents forever to catch up with everyone else and get a VCR.  I remember when that first VCR entered our home, the film world really opened up for me.  I was forever changed.  Unfortunately, I cannot remember what movie I first rented on my own - that memory has been gobbled up by my vivid recollections of arguing with my parents, who did not want me befouling our home by bringing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Friday The 13th back from the rental store.  I was already pretty obsessed with movies at that young age, and I wore my parents down until they finally capitulated and let me rent whatever I wanted.  Upon bringing our first VCR home from the store, Mom and Dad's early rule "No R-Rated movies in the house." lasted about two days. 

I have never been particularly close with my parents, as we share virtually no interests.  My dad, an engineer, did not and does not give a crap about filmmaking, horror movies, or movies in general.  But he has a soft spot for science-fiction, which I stealthily used to arrange that magical moment in a young man's life: watching an R-Rated film with your dad for the first time.  I remember I was asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, and I said I wanted to rent a movie and watch it with Dad.  We brought home The Terminator (1984) from the rental store, which I had not yet seen.  Watching Arnold Schwarzenegger terrorize Linda Hamilton in our basement TV room in Pittsburgh is now rare father-son quality time that remains vivid in my memory.  I wonder if my dad remembers that.

It didn't put a dent in VHS sales, but eventually the LaserDisc format struggled up from the depths to separate many a film fan from their money.  LaserDiscs were the world's first commercial optical disc storage media - the old VideoDiscs were an analog stylus / groove system, and Betamax and VHS were magnetic tape formats.  LaserDiscs were first marketed as "Discovision" (?!?) in 1978, but the silver platters didn't catch on until Pioneer Electronics purchased the format and started marketing it as "LaserDisc" in the early 80's.  Even then, the format only caught on with hard-core film fans.  Excluding the success of the format in Asia, the Pioneer LaserDisc is considered a flop.  I did not see my first LaserDisc player until I was in college.  There I met Tony Bridges (who would later contribute to my films as a special effects artist).  Like many other passionate film fans who had shelled out big bucks for a player (and big bucks for the discs, which cost anywhere from $40 to $150 per release) Tony owned the first LaserDisc player I ever saw in action.  I went to his house one night where I screened my first LaserDisc movie, The Exorcist (1973).  We also watched Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981). 

A lot of film fans were frustrated when the lower-priced, much more popular DVDs came around, as many of them had accumulated a very expensive collection of LaserDiscs.  The usually soft-spoken and reclusive filmmaker Kevin Smith (sarcasm intended) made a big, angry public stink about DVD being a terrible format that could never dethrone the LaserDisc.  "FUCK DVD!" if memory serves, were Kevin's carefully chosen words on the debate.

I never purchased a LaserDisc player, but I still own a perfectly-functioning hand-me-down player (and about 25 hand-me-down movies) that were all given to me by actor and friend DJ Vivona.  The first and only LaserDisc I ever purchased for myself was The Thing (1982) right at the tail end, when LaserDisc was taking its final breath. 

And speaking of Mr. Vivona…  In 1996 we were on location shooting Wicked Pixel Cinema's first production, Ice From The Sun, which was shot entirely on Super 8mm film.  I recall enthusiastic conversations on that set about the development of the DVD format.  Specifically, I remember telling some cast and crew that "Soon they're gonna be able to fit an entire movie on a disc the size of a CD!"  At that time, this was like telling people that jet packs and flying cars were going to be available in time for Christmas. 

Of course, in 1996, the Video CD or VCD (from Philips, Sony, Matsushita, and JVC) existed, so movies were already available on 120mm optical discs.  But I had never seen or heard of these at the time, which indicates how popular they were in America.  I hear VCDs made a big splash in Asia, though.  I also hear the picture quality was terrible (half the resolution of VHS tapes).  To this day I've never seen playback of a VCD.

The first time I saw a movie on DVD was at DJ Vivona's house.  The brand new format of DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) was a collaboration between Philips, Sony, Toshiba, and Time Warner.  DJ invited me over to see his new, very pricey DVD player in action.  The first demonstration of DVD I saw was Blade Runner (1982).

The first two DVDs I purchased for my budding personal collection were The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

I get to claim a bit of history when it comes to the DVD format.  Ice From The Sun was released in 1999 to both VHS and DVD.  It was the first of my films to see DVD release.  In those days, getting a DVD authored was an expensive endeavor and, if you were not a major studio, quite the uphill battle.  I had to spend months babysitting and changing the diapers of the technicians we'd hired to author Ice From The Sun to DVD.  In the end, Ice From The Sun became one of the first independent films to be released on the DVD format - and it was the very first film shot on Super 8mm film to be released on DVD.

Having blazed the trail, I entered the DVD industry personally by co-founding a post-production and DVD authoring company called Thrill Ride Media in 2001.  We did a lot of work in a lot of areas, but our consistent money-maker was authoring independent films for DVD release.  Compared to similar companies around at the time, we - by far - had the highest output.  At our peak, we were authoring four bonus-features-packed DVDs a month.  By the time the company shut down in 2005, we had authored more than 150 independent film DVD releases.

Growing up learning all I could about filmmaking, I was always excited to absorb some new morsel of insight or advice about the creative aspects of it.  Learning to be a better director, bit by bit, was and is a thrill.  But, as I stated, movies are a mechanism-dependent art form, and experiencing the evolution of those mechanisms has been pretty cool too.

Thanks for reading.

-Eric Stanze