The Evolution of Home Theater – Big Tech of the Small Screen

[Class Assembling] Welcome to Filmmaker, I’m John Hess
and today we’ll look at the history of home theaters – bringing movies from cineplex into
the living room. In our world of Vimeo, YouTube, Netflix and
Hulu – virtually anything you want to see is just a click away. Never before has so
much content been available to so many with such ease. So as we begin our journey, winding
back the clock to the beginning of the previous century, we have to imagine a different time
and a different relationship to media. Movies began in the Nickelodeon – a term that
mashed up the word nickel and odeon – a Greek word for a theater for musical performances.
For just five cents, audiences could be entertained with a variety of short films and live acts.
Nickelodeons were a major part of the American culture – with an estimated 8,000 Nickelodeons
in the US by 1908 and 26 million regular attendees by 1910. But as quickly as Nickelodeons exploded on
the American conscious – they quickly went away. As a network of film distribution came
into place theaters found that Audiences tended to favor the feature length film and you didn’t
need the live vaudeville acts. Of course, the longer films were more expensive to make.
Prices for admission necessarily skyrocketed – doubling to 10 cents but now you were seeing
feature films with a couple of shorts made with great skill and craft in a much more
elegant setting – the mindset of the time demonstrated by this ad from 1915 from a small
unknown upstart – Paramount Pictures. Here, casting off the old dingy Nickelodeon of the
past for the new Paramount Pictures Movie Palace. So for a generation or two, movies were something
you got out of the house and went to. Only the rich collectors had home movie projectors
and private collections of films were mostly scraps, interesting bits from films here and
there to show off to their friends at dinner parties. Even the filmmakers themselves saw little
value in their films once the screenings were done. Part of the problem was the inherit
danger of storing old film. Nitrate film was used at that time, which was extremely flammable
– it would even burn underwater. And as the stuff decayed, it turned into essentially
gunpowder leading to some famous unfortunate accidents such as the fire in 1937 at 20th
Century-Fox Studios which wiped out all their pre-1935 film stock. The fact was studios
just needed the storage space for new films more than they needed the archvies so they
just destroyed old films. An estimated 90% of all silent films ever made are considered
lost and gone forever. Even though Television had been invented and
regular public broadcasts started by the BBC as early as 1929, the Great Depression and
World War II prevented TV from becoming an everyday household appliance until the late
1940s. But Television became a great mass produced product as the economy turned from
Guns to Butter in the post war years. And the American Public served as a great consumer
base the Baby boom shifted populations away from the cities and into surburbia. TV was
an easy and free delivery tool of entertainment straight into the home. Movie theater attendance plummeted dropping
50% from 1946 to 1955.. At first the movie studios tried to get in on the TV action but
the FCC was hesitant to hand broadcasting licenses to movie companies that had just
lost a Supreme Court anti-trust lawsuit in 1948 over their anti-competition practices
in dealing with theaters. Instead, it was the radio broadcasters, CBS, NBC, ABC, who
got in on the Television game. So immediately Hollywood saw TV as head on
competition and they responded by entrenching themselves and refusing to sell rights for
movies for broadcast and forbidding their stars to appear on the new electronic medium.
The numbers were grim, tickets sales were down, productions slowed to a crawl and the
studios levied heavy layoffs. At the close of the 40s, it looked like Hollywood was about
to implode with TV laying down the final straw. But out of challenge comes innovation. To
compete with Television, the clever filmmakers changed tack and focused on what they could
do better – spectacle. Widescreen aspect ratios, first popularized by Cinerama in 1952 and
Cinemascope in 1953, Stereo and multichannel sound, Larger screens going from 30 foot to
50 foot screens, Full Adoption of color, and even the first wave of 3D – many of the aspects
of our modern film experience began as a way to get people away from their homes and into
the theatre. But Film’s little brother of Television
had grander aspirations and still wanted to be in the movies. Broadcasters had a lot of
time to fill – why not show an old movie and sell ad space. And for the newer, leaner Hollywood
which grew out of the devastation of the late 40s, TV wasn’t seen so much as competition
but a new revenue stream, with studios beginning to sell rights to television as early 1956.
Then On September 23, 1961, NBC premiered Saturday Night at the Movies – featuring the
1953 film How to Marry a Millionaire starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable.
Broadcast in “Living Color” How To Marry A Millionaire was the second film to be made
in widescreen Cinemascope. Unfortunately for viewers at the time, the film was severely
panned and scanned – the process of zooming in and lopping off the sides of the image
in order to fill a 4:3 screen with a portion of the original 2.35 image – this wrecks havoc
of the original compositions – often losing actors who are positioned on the edges of
the screen. Regardless, Saturday Night at the Movies led to countless spinoffs from
all the broadcasters – practically one for each night of the week. The studios had found value in their old catalogs
and Television had found relatively cheap content to fill time. But most importantly,
a major social shift was occurring – the idea that now you could stay home and catch a movie
– an idea that would cement itself in the world’s conscious with the introduction
of tape. The Tape Empire and Digital Successors Video tape for professional broadcast use
was invented by the Ampex Corporation in 1956 but the machines and tape reels were far too
expensive for personal use. Consumer electronics would catch up starting in 1970 when Sony
released the U-matic, a system designed for home use that recorded onto bulky ¾” tapes.
This was followed by the short lived Cartrivision in 1972. Then came the big two and the famous
format war: In 1975 the Sony BetaMax followed a year later by JVC’s VHS in 1976. Now the technological stage was set for watching
movies at home on demand… But studios didn’t realize the potential market yet… When tape was originally sold to consumers
– it was as a way for viewers to “time shift” their favorite TV programs – recording shows
to be watched later – Cartrivision had dabbled in a rental system with movies on prerecorded
tapes but the company folded soon after their launch so nothing came of it. There just didn’t
seem to be any thought of actually selling movies on tape. That changed in 1977 when
Andrew Blay of Magnetic Video convinced a financially struggling 20th Century Fox to
license 50 of their titles to be released on prerecorded BetaMax and VHS tapes. Blay’s company took off and the film video
tape market was born sparking off the video rental industry. At first, Hollywood assumed
people were only interested in renting films. But it didn’t take long for studios to realize
there was some serious money to made in stocking up people’s personal video libraries. Distributors
cut the prices of video tapes from $80 a piece which were priced to sell to rental houses
down to $19.95 and below and saw huge increases in sales. In 1980, Walt Disney got into the
business dipping into their catalog of family films. The venture was so successful 20th
Century Fox turned around and even acquired Andrew Blay’s company Magnetic Video and
reorganized it into 20th Century Fox video in 1980 which merged with CBS Video another
giant in 1982 to become CBS Fox Video. The Video Market was big big business. Not long after VHS hit the market came the
first commercially successful optical disk format – the LaserDisc originally marketed
as the MCA DiscoVision in 1978. Still an analog format but superior in many ways to VHS tape,
LaserDisc was a big hit with cinephiles. I think you will not be wasting your money to invest $600 in a LaserDisc player because the quality is so much better. That everytime we mention a cassette on this show or our regular show. I feel like people are getting cheated in a way because they’re not buying a LaserDisc, they’re not getting the sound… Unfortunately LaserDisc never really did get
a foothold in North America – The extra costs of the players and the LaserDisc themselves
meant that market penetration never rose above 1% of households despite the perceivable quality
advantage. The next breakthrough for home media would
have to wait for computers and compression to bring digital to video. In 1993, roughly
10 years after the release of the audio CD, Philips introduced the VCD – using a new digital
compression called MPEG-1 to compress movie titles to fit onto two discs. VCDs enjoyed
a brief window of success until Hollywood realized these VCDs were really easy to pirate
– MPEG1 had no copy protection whatsoever. Luckily in 1995 an alternative came in the DVD Introduced by Philips, Sony, Toshiba
and Panasonic, The DVD used MPEG2 compression on an optical disk which was roughly the same
size as the popular audio CD. With MPEG-2 Compression capable of storing video, multiple
audio tracks and extras – the DVD did what Laserdisc couldn’t and quickly became the
preferred method of distributing movies for the home. But as our story progresses, the
time scale gets more and more compressed as DVDs, once king of home entertainment would
bow out to High Definition and digital delivery in only a decade. High Definition is the first format to begin
bringing a real cinematic experience into the home. There were many experiments in HiDefinition
in decades past but it was digital that enabled the transmission of a higher resolution signal.
HDTV as outlined in ITU-R Recommendation ITU-R BT.709-2 in 1990 – sported a maximum resolution
of 1920×1080 – a major departure from the 640x480ish standard def resolution. Also new
was the introduction of a new 16×9 aspect ratio. 16×9 or 1.78 as a decimal was derived
as a geometric mean between old Academy 4×3 (1.33) and the wide Scope aspect ratio of
2.40. This 16×9 aspect ratio was a compromise – a way in which images pillared box to to
4×3 or letterboxed to 2.40 would both get the roughly the same number of pixels: 1.5
Megapixels of the 2.1 Megapixels in an HD image. With HDTV standards in place, Surround sound,
HD streaming over the internet, and Bluray discs (released in 2006 and went on to win
a much publicized but relatively short and uneventful format war with HD-DVD in 2008)
you had the elements necessary to create a really great Home Theater Experience that
were certainly miles ahead of turn of century nickelodeons and movie houses.. But for those that want full big screen experience
at home, home digital projector is the way to go. Unfortunately with the HD 16×9 compromise,
the films that Hollywood created to have the largest, most immersive feel – those shot
in the scope 2.40 aspect ratio – end up being the smallest content on a 16:9 screen, framed
by black letterbox bars that are essentially wasted projection. Fortunately there’s a
optical solution from a company called Panamorph. Working in the same fashion as a cinemascope
anamorphic lens, Panamorph system uses the projector’s scaler feature to stretch the
image vertically and eliminate the black letterbox bars – this utilizes the full power and resolution
of the projector. Then a specially engineered Panamorph anamorphic lens goes in front of
the projector stretches out the projection to a 2.40 aspect ratio restoring the correct
screen geometry. This process results in projections that are 33% wider and 80% larger without
sacrificing picture quality, and a true recreation of the filmmaker’s intent creating that big
immersive feel right in the home. A clever use of tried and true technology to solve
new digital challenges. We’ve taken films out of the cineplex and
brought them into our homes and even our very own pockets. The media rich culture of today
may not even be recognizable compared with the early days of home VCRs let alone the
pioneers of filmmaking. The fact is, changes in technology have inherently changed our
relationship to film. The story of cinema is a story of and unrelenting change. Even
as we speak, we’re entering another radical shift with digital distribution – no one really
knows how the cards will fall. It’s going to be challenging times of course, but with
all great challenges, comes great opportunities. Now more than ever, is the time to go out
there and make something great. I’m John Hess and I’ll see you at


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