Prior to television, for the most part, the only way to see a movie was to catch it in theatres. Sure, a few got re-released but only the most popular ones, and these were rare occurrences. And even once TVs were a fixture of people’s homes, finding what you wanted was a crapshoot. You had to hope you were available when it happened to air, and of course, there was no pausing or rewinding. On top of all that until channels like HBO, films were edited for content, time, interrupted by commercials, and the aspect ratio was altered, so people definitely weren’t getting the full experience. Hypothetically one could get their own projector and prints, but this was costly and very uncommon, especially compared to what was to come.
Once home video became commonplace, there was no longer a sense of urgency to see a film in theaters, and many started waiting for something to come out on VHS or DVD if they weren’t dying to see it as soon as possible. In fact, at this point, some moviegoers only see visually impressive action, science fiction and fantasy in the theaters and think of dramas and comedies as something to watch on streaming or on Blu-ray. Some think this trend may lead to theaters being solely for big-budget spectacle with quieter films being relegated to streaming services.
On the other hand, this also meant that fans could enjoy their favorite films over and over again at their leisure. This led to some movies gaining huge cult followings and people watching things like Star Wars dozens of times and memorizing every line of dialogue. Star Wars may not have had as much staying power if new generations weren’t able to easily get access to it on home video.
Similarly, this has allowed movies that underperformed at the box office to sometimes have a second chance to become loved by audiences, like with Fight Club, Donnie Darko, or Big Lebowski. In earlier eras, offbeat films like these would most likely fall into obscurity. This allows filmmakers to experiment more as their work has a chance to become profitable in home video or at least gain more respect among fans.
Before we could watch movies at home, most were limited to what was currently playing, but since the 70s and 80s we can all check out stuff from any era or things that didn’t make it to where you live. For those that like older or foreign films, home video is a godsend. Anime likely wouldn’t have become as popular in the United States in the 1980s if it weren’t for VHS and Laserdisc. It’s now much easier for anyone to become a cinephile.
Another major way that video formats have changed the world of cinema is through special features that give movie watchers insight into how they’re made and what the filmmakers were thinking. This has made making movies into a more opaque process that everyday people can wrap their heads around. Acclaimed directors such as Ava Duvernay have specifically stated that they used supplementary materials as a sort of film school. With things like deleted scenes and full-length commentaries, we have unprecedented insights into what went on during production.
The ability to pause, rewind, and fast forward can also not be overstated as we are no longer at the mercy of a projector. Pausing has led to creators adding in little tidbits and jokes that are difficult or even impossible to notice without freeze frame. Minor continuity errors or goofs could be left in without anyone seeing if they were on screen for a short enough amount of time, but now we pause and pick up on small mistakes. And with rewinding, we are able to watch our favorite scenes over and over or fast forward past parts we don’t feel like seeing.
Especially once DVDs made it big, director’s cuts or other alternative versions were often made. In the early 2000s, it seemed like every other movie had a so-called “unrated cut” or something along those lines. With some films, an alternate version became the definitive one, like how hardly anyone recommends the Theatrical Cut of Blade Runner. With the original Star Wars trilogy, a lot of younger viewers probably only know the Special Editions as that’s the only way you can access it in HD. Directors know going in that they can at least make minor tweaks later on, an opportunity not afforded to filmmakers in the golden age of Hollywood.
Home video has also greatly opened up the world of film production, as it allows for straight to DVD movies, or more recently exclusives to streaming services. These can have much smaller budgets, especially when it comes to marketing, so way more people can make content. Straight to DVD used to be an indicator of low quality, but now with Netflix and Hulu, artists can take risks and not worry about how many tickets they are going to sell. Scorsese’s upcoming film The Irishman was rejected by the major studios and probably wouldn’t have been made if Netflix hadn’t picked up on it.
One more huge factor is the massive increase in piracy. In the first half of the 20th century, paying to see a movie was pretty much your only option. Piracy reached the mainstream with bootleg VHS tapes, and now, those of us who are even a bit tech-savvy know that they can easily obtain any movie for free a few months after its release while sitting on their couch. It’s become harder than ever to convince us to pay to see things in theaters.
Clearly, home video has had a significant impact on the film industry and this isn’t likely to slow down in the future.