Categories
Cinema Summer of 1989

Nostalgia and the Ghastly Beauty of Ill-Advised Hollywood Cinema

I’ve decided to start posting chapter drafts of my manuscript about the summer movies of 1989. In light of our current quarantine situation, my writing has become nothing but a chore. I know many won’t read these pages, but if you do, please share your thoughts. I hope our communication causes me to get back to writing. I hope writing once again becomes the distraction rather than the chore.

On the previous episodes of THE LAST GREATEST HOLLYWOOD SUMMER: The Preamble / Chapter 1: Die Hard on a VHS Tape

Chapter 2: Nostalgia, Hot to Trot, and the Ghastly Beauty of Ill-Advised Hollywood Cinema

I’d like to pre-empt this particular conversation with a little thought about nostalgia. The word “nostalgia” has been scapegoated by critics as a determination of derivativeness. Label something “nostalgic” and you’ve condemned it to a combative and somewhat abbreviated shelf life. The anti-nostalgists play whack-a-mole with any perceived dwelling in the past, while the the pro-nostalgia camp futilely attempts to explain the difference between nostalgia, reference, and just plain creative laziness. Here’s your cheat sheet: one’s a bygone story; one’s a nudge and wink; and the other uses a nudge and a wink as a stand-in for originality. And then there are the people who are still slinging Bon Jovi mullets and Slippery When Wet cassette tapes. They’re still making cassette tapes. It’s not exactly the battle over Roe vs. Wade, but there’s a war raging and it’s coming for our right to feel gooey, irrational benevolence for movies like, say, Hot to Trot (Michael Dinner, 1988). (You didn’t think I was headed for Bobcat Goldthwait, did you?)

In a New Yorker article based on a speech he gave at the Jewish Book Council, Michael Chabon – a writer who has himself been the target of such criticisms – fires back, “Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion[1].”

Nostalgia isn’t the offense. Nostalgia’s the result. Preying on nostalgia, selling “stuff” based solely on the purpose of stroking the id, that’s where it turns on itself, a snake consuming its own tail. Franchises trade heavily in the latter two elements. James Bond, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. call back to old familiar tropes all the time. South Park masterfully skewered this empty brand of referential nostalgia with Season 20’s “Member Berries” – small purple berries that speak in nostalgic phrases and words without any context. When they speak to Randy March they recycle Reagan-era talking points. “Remember AT-ATs?” “Remember Chewbacca?” “Remember Slimer?” The berries induce a kind of complacent contentment, but Randy stops eating them when the Member Berries begin queueing up less palatable talking points among the innocent pop culture baubles. “Remember when there weren’t so many Mexicans?” “Remember Chewbacca again?” “Remember when marriage was just between a man and a woman?”

Chabon’s nostalgia isn’t the “stuff” of regurgitation – it’s the actual connection to a thing or a place or a person. I don’t want Battle Armor He-Man in my life any more than the next fellow who doesn’t even know He-Man came in variant featuring a breast plate that spun upon contact and displayed varying degrees of chinked armor. I’m nostalgic for the feeling I first had when I made Beastman punch the living daylights out of He-Man and that flimsy hunk of plastic rotated to display armor dents and OH MY GOD THAT’S MAGIC!

We found wonder and magic everywhere when we were kids, from the most mundane events (You mean I can send in six box tops from my Mini-Wheats plus $1 and I’ll get a Bad Company cassette single in return?!?) to the truly remarkable, like gazing up a full-size skeleton of a Tyrannosaurs Rex and coming to terms with our puny, insignificant lot in time and space.

Here’s what I find to be the most interesting part of embracing nostalgia – we don’t have to have experienced something to be nostalgic for it. Each ping of nostalgia is a tiny trip back into the past to experience or relive something that cannot currently be.

My wife and I have developed an attachment to Horn & Hardat automats. The walk-in, self-serving vending machine/dining room popped up in New York and Philadelphia starting around 1902 and disappeared completely in 1991. We’ve never set foot inside one, but we’ve romanticized the idea of the automat. We cannot relive what it felt like to receive freshly cooked meal components through mail slots, but we can imagine, and maybe we were just born in the wrong era? But then again, I’ve never fancied myself confident enough in my prowess to call myself the greatest anything, let alone the greatest generation. That’s just not Gen X’s strongest trait. Orienting one’s own existence within time and space in relation to the heyday of the automat seems mildly shortsighted.

Due to the wealth of culture, information and programming at our fingertips in a connected world, we have the ability to conflate our documented history into a finite window. Our learned nostalgia for these connections before our time, the ones we could not possible experience firsthand, cannot hold up emotionally against the active connections we make with the people and places and things of our childhood. These resonate most deeply.

Nostalgia’s not a dirty word. Nostalgia can save the world by giving people a perceived place of order and familiarity among chaos. These feelings of loss inspire us to tell stories without irony. They inspire novels and movies and all kinds of earnest longing for disappearing culture. Each subsequent generation needs a tether to the past, else they’ll only understand or know the world immediately around them. Nostalgia, in this respect, forms an identity, which in turn fosters a generational community. Our parents walked up hill both ways. We watched R-rated movies, unsupervised, at the age of 7 because who was around to stop us from watching Beverly Hills Cop? Or the other five hours of afterschool game shows and soap operas that kept us latch-key kids company?

Now, returning to Hot to Trot — what insane studio executive allowed such a movie to happen? And better yet, why do I feel a fondness for it?

An idiot son played by Bobcat Goldthwait inherits half a brokerage and a talking horse, much to the dismay of his heinous, bucktoothed stepfather (classic 80’s jerk, misogynist, antagonist Dabney Coleman). The talking horse gives the idiot son stock tips. Idiot son gets rich. Horse tells idiot son to buy stock in a company that produces orgasmic oats. It turns out the oats are contaminated and the company goes bankrupt. Idiot son abandons his half of the brokerage. In order to get back in the red, the idiot son decides to race the talking horse. To be clear – horse racing has never been a part of this movie, except for the passing mention that Dabney Coleman owns racehorses. Idiot son then bets his horse against Dabney Coleman’s horse and all his other horses. So even if he wins the race, what does he have? Not money. Not the brokerage. He has more horses.

Love or hate the 1980s, here’s the best example for both sides of the argument: Hot to Trot felt like just another day at the movies and not something completely insane. It’s Francis the Talking Mule meets The Secret of My Success meets the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races starring Bobcat Goldthwait. A completely unnatural film cocktail that should have been shot down immediately by any kind of studio exec who wasn’t completely addicted to cocaine. But they were, so we get Hot to Trot.

I’d like to point out that the budget for Hot to Trot exceeded $9 million. This movie includes original music from Danny Elfman. It also involves the cost of a total reworking and re-recording of the horse’s dialogue. Originally voiced by Elliott Gould, test screenings found the film lacking in laughs so Warner Bros. hired Saturday Night Live writer Andy Breckman to punch up the dialogue and John Candy to be the new voice of the horse. Candy discarded the dialogue and improvised his lines anyway. This explains quite a bit, but the fact remains that Hot to Trot was never going to recoup its budget. Would you like me to name some contemporaneous films that cost less than $9 million to make?

Look Who’s Talking cost $7.5million and made close to $140 million at the domestic box office. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? $6.5 million. Heathers? $3 million. I’m not out to shame Hot to Trot, because I enjoy what it represents. A rather large sum of money spent on a movie of no consequence and low box office expectations. Raiders of the Lost Ark only cost two Hot to Trots. Two.

During the 1980s studios took bigger risks on smaller movies.  Some of them, like Hot to Trot were wildly irresponsible gambles, but the point is that they took them. They invested in wildly creative ideas and star power and less on brands. (That was just around the corner.) To put this in greater perspective with our current era of moviemaking, all of the top 20 grossing movies of the 2010s are a remake, a sequel or part of a planned franchise. Every single one. Only six of the top grossing films from the 1980s were a sequel, remake or part of an established franchise and four of those six belonged to the original Star Wars trilogy or Indiana Jones. (I’m not counting Tim Burton’s Batman as a franchise entry. Despite the comic book origins, sequels were not planned and the character had been dormant for 30 years. Few expected its massive success, but I’ll get back to Batman in a couple of chapters.)

A surefire way to induce cerebral hemorrhage – play ‘guess which certifiable classic films wouldn’t be made today under the modern studio system’? Nobody greenlights Ghostbusters – a $30 million movie about eccentric paranormal experts. Back to Future’s future would have been in jeopardy. The alternate timeline: $20 million dollar original idea from Robert Zemeckis whose only prior box office success had been Romancing the Stone – another original concept that probably doesn’t get made in the 21st Century – gets thrown into the reject bin because it’s too expensive for upstarts Netflix and Amazon and not bankable enough for $50 million of Universal’s money. Just consider how many of your favorite movies they’re just not making. (I’ll give you a clue: it’s all of them. They’re not making any of your favorite movies.)

I’ve focused on the massive juggernaut hits because these names resonate. Considering that we might live in a world without Back to the Future or Ghostbusters stirs emotions, but it’s exactly these types of successes that created the blockbuster culture in which we live. The downside to tasting this kind of success means that studios want their tentpoles to make $300 million dollars at the domestic box office, not including the international ticket sales and merchandising which skews most heavily to these bankable action and comic book franchises. Instead of stepping up to a roulette wheel with a bunch of small- to medium-sized bets, studios place two bets on each spin: $100million on red and $100million on black.

It’s easy to forget that every single original idea comes with risk. Now studios want the reward without the risk.

Back in 2010, Dave Itzkoff interviewed Mad Men creator Matthew Wiener in the New York Times about contemporary media culture, “It’s a bummer to see movie after movie where so many talented people get together and so much money is spent, and they’re just bland, lifeless, familiar, fake. I’m not a superhero, it’s not one of my interests. It’s O.K. for it be a fraction of the entertainment that’s out there, but it can’t be everything… something happened that nobody can make a movie between $500,000 and $80 million. That can’t be possible.”

The greatest casualty of this kind of tentpole filmmaking becomes the mid-budget, mid-aspiration adult-oriented cinema. Dramas, dark or R-rated comedies, offbeat thrillers, adventure films – things that can’t be sold to the average moviegoer in 10 seconds or less. Francis Ford Coppola made four of the best films in cinema history and he can’t get a movie financed. His last movies, made in 2007 and 2011 were financed by his wine business. It’s not just that bottom line cost of making the film, however, that provides the sticking point for movie studios – it’s the promotion, which even for tentpole productions of which everyone is aware sometimes costs 50% of the production budget. It just costs more to promote a movie that’s not already a brand[2].

In 1997, The New York Times ran an article based on industry hysteria that the cost of the average Hollywood movie had risen to $60million. Sherry Lansing, chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group said, “I’m horrified at these numbers. They don’t make sense. We’re killing ourselves[3].” (In 2007, by comparison, the average movie cost $106.6 million.) Despite this forgotten panic, take a look at a snapshot of the top grossing films of 1999. Only Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace and Toy Story 2 were reboots or sequels. Theatrical audiences were treated to (quality debatable) original thrillers (The Sixth Sense), original adult comedies (Runaway Bride, Big Daddy), science fiction (The Matrix), and horror (The Blair Witch Project). There was also Universal’s re-imagining of The Mummy, which recast the hero of the story as an Indiana Jones-type and turned the old horror classic into a matinee-idol adventure film.

Looking specifically at the early months of 1989, The ‘burbs, Kickboxer, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Major League stand out as well-regarded projects that wouldn’t have been made. All of which were mid-budget entertainment intended for adults; original R-rated comedies, expensive flights of fancy, and martial arts spectacles. Argue all you want about the merits of the individual films; my point is, however, that many people really like these movies and continue to value their existence.

As a slice of the available Hollywood offerings in the late 1980s, they represent the width and breadth of the ideas that studios were willing to bankroll. They represent risk. The modest success or minor failures of these films seemed like acceptable returns. You win some you lose some – but the studios would come to view each modest success as a failure and each minor failure as an unacceptable loss. In the new success or failure infographic, Hot to Trot would have been filed next to the instructions for hara-kiri.

The process hasn’t changed. Not really. What’s changed is ownership. Starting in 1989, massive conglomerates began adding movie studios to their faceless, corporate entities. Instead of David O. Selznick, filmmakers have to answer to the board of Comcast. They’re minor cogs in a massive moneymaking machine. It’s not worth doing unless you’re talking Scrooge McDuck money.

Consider the “great” movies we’ll pass along to our kids or future generations. I know I’m biased due to the years during which I came of moviewatching age but I can’t think of more than a handful of post-2000 films I wanted to share with my daughters, but I couldn’t wait to put Back to the Future in front of them. Objectively great movies come from all eras of moviemaking, but let’s face the facts here – the most pure escapist fun happened in the 1980s.

Once upon a time, movies captured the hearts and minds of entire cultures and didn’t rely on formula and familiarity. How else can you explain a film staying at #1 for consecutive months (not weeks!) as in the case of Ghostbusters or Beverly Hills Cop or Raiders of the Lost Ark? I had the opportunity to see these movies four or five times over the course of a theatrical release. Of course, there’s that aforementioned home video release window I discussed earlier, which would decrease box office longevity in short order, but that’s exactly why 1989 stands out among its surrounding years. Not only did 1989 showcase both the spark of creativity that drove invention during the 1980’s, but it’s also the last gasp of theatrical box office longevity before the gap between theatrical release and purchase for home consumption narrows significantly. It also served as a harbinger for the future of the Hollywood box office with four sequels in the Top 10 domestic receipts. In as much as we can subjectively declare 1989 to be the best of all Hollywood summers, it’s important to acknowledge that it also, in many ways, represented the beginning of the end for the mid-budget blockbuster. The big studio rollercoaster paused at the apex and then inched down the decline before a final, wild ride to the finish.


[1] https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-true-meaning-of-nostalgia

[2] http://flavorwire.com/492985/how-the-death-of-mid-budget-cinema-left-a-generation-of-iconic-filmmakers-mia/2

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/05/movies/average-hollywood-film-now-costs-60-million.html

Categories
Cinema Summer of 1989

The Last Greatest Hollywood Summer: Die Hard on a VHS Tape

I’ve decided to start posting chapter drafts of my manuscript about the summer movies of 1989. In light of our current quarantine situation, my writing has become nothing but a chore. I’m home-schooling kids and maintaining stress levels and writing and research has become the most impossible thing in my world. I can barely type a sentence without fielding a homework question. (Technology and seven year olds do not mix.) I try at night. I try in the morning. Distraction is required, but distraction is a terrible writing bedfellow. I know many won’t read these pages, but if you do, please share your thoughts. I hope our communication causes me to get back to writing. I hope writing once again becomes the distraction rather than the chore.

On the previous episode of THE LAST GREATEST HOLLYWOOD SUMMER: The Preamble

die hard on a vhs

Chapter 1: Die Hard on a VHS Tape

Early 1989 slept off its holiday bender as, per tradition, prior-year releases dominated due to Oscar buzz and awards promotion. In the pin-up magazine dedicated to this phenomenon of the totally and completely forgettable January, 1989 graced the centerfold.

With a box office populated by seven forgettable mid-budget offerings like Deepstar Six, Physical Evidence, and The January Man, the Oscar-favorite Rain Man (1988) dominated ticket sales on its way to four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor. The film entered January at #1 in its third week of release and carried the title through the end of the month.

It would only be dethroned in February by the mostly forgotten Martin Short/Nick Nolte bank robbery comedy Three Fugitives. The film rode an overcompensatory advertising campaign to a $6.4 million opening week and $40 million over the course of a 16-week theatrical run. 16 weeks! That tells all you need to know about the early 1989 box office wasteland.

This apparent crowd pleaser offered broad humor and a wildly uneven tone that waffled between saccharine kid drama and screwball comedy. Despite strong (mismatched) lead performances, Three Fugitives barely registers as a film in 2020 unless you remember dragging your parents to see the thing due to a Martin Short obsession in the wake of Three Amigos! (1986). I do not doubt that they were pleased when I stopped spotting airplanes in the sky and asking them if they thought it was a “male plane.” (At least now my kids have seen Three Amigos! and are old enough to humor me.)

In a stagnant theatrical landscape, the real drama took place on the rental shelves. Until 1988, retail sell-through VHS comprised only about 20% of the home video market. The general public had yet to embrace the ownership of movies, which shouldn’t be surprising since most studios priced these VHS offerings according to their weight in precious minerals. With a going rate of $50-$100 for the average VHS tape[1], it’s not hard to see why rentals dominated the market. Only a few notable mega-hits had even launched retail advertising campaigns. The Top Gun / Pepsi reign of terror remains one of the most aggressively scarring marketing onslaughts in home video history.

In order to offset the loss of selling Top Gun at the then impossibly price of $26.95, Paramount struck a deal with Pepsi. Paramount Pictures allowed the soft drink maker to include a 2-minute commercial before the beginning of the film on retail VHS copies. In return, Pepsi agreed to push the Top Gun release during its own TV commercials. An entire generation survives to this day with the Pepsi commercial branded into their grey matter.

Unlike pay cable, which the studios had readily embraced because networks would prepay producers for exclusive rights, home video was met with skepticism. The original intended purpose of the VCR had been to record live television. So how did we reach a price-point of $80-$100 for individual home video releases? To answer this question, let’s enjoy a rapid-fire history of the sell-through VHS tape.

Founded by Andrew Blay (producer of They Live and Brain Damage), Magnetic Video approached 20st Century Fox in 1977 about obtaining a licensing agreement to release 50 films from their catalog on VHS and Betamax. At the time of Blay’s offer, the cash-strapped Fox had no qualms with making a few extra pennies on films that were just lying around gathering dust. Classics such as The Sound of Music, Patton, M*A*S*H, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid became some of the first films sold via catalog mail order through the Video Club of America. Each of the boxes came with a list of the available films on the back cover rather than a description of the film itself. Each tape cost somewhere between $50 and $70.

The early success of the deal convinced Fox to purchase Magnetic Video outright in 1979. Soon after, Warner Brothers launched WCI Home Video and released 20 of their own catalog titles including the bulky clamshell VHS box everyone remembers, Superman. Since the movie ran longer than two hours, however, it had to be shortened from its theatrical runtime of 143 minutes to the VHS-friendly 127 minutes. Super speed, indeed. Nobody complained too much about the edits, however, because for the first time consumers could own their favorite movies and watch them as much and whenever they wanted[2] rather than relying on the rare prime-time television event.

Disney had also been an early adopter of sell-through pricing. The company began releasing live action classics such as The Love Bug and Bedknobs and Broomsticks all the way back in 1980. Dumbo launched a series of animated classics in the fall of 1981 with a price of $29.95.

In 1982, Paramount’s home video production group tested the temperature with the release of an individual episode of the Star Trek television series. “Space Seed” hit retail shelves in the wake of the theatrical success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. “Space Seed” remained on the Billboard chart for bestselling VHS tapes from the summer of 1982 until early 1983. It received another boost when The Wrath of Khan hit home video shelves for the bargain price of $39.95 — $40 less than Star Trek The Motion Picture just a couple years prior. The success of Star Trek on VHS gave Paramount the confidence to eventually offer every Star Trek original series episode for purchase on VHS, a brand new concept in home video, but one that seems positively quaint in the wake of the availability of TV on DVD and streaming services like Netflix that allow you access to the entire 236-episode run of Friends with the wave of a remote.

Despite their hesitancy, studios could not hold back the tide of home video. They had to adapt or get swept away. 20th Century Fox rubbed the lamp, and nobody could put the genie back in the bottle. VHS and Betamax brought movies into the home, and the closely guarded studio gates were about to be forced open with a crowbar known as Blockbuster Video.

Founded in 1985, Blockbuster Video quickly became the largest rental chain in the country and a swift jab into the jaw of Hollywood. The rise of the video rental store caused a chain reaction all across the industry. But first let’s be kind rewind and talk legalese.

Concerns about piracy and copyright had begun as early as 1976 when various studios (obviously not including 20th Century Fox, who’d jumped on direct-sale VHS early) sued Sony to prevent the proliferation of their Betamax machine. Focus at the time had been on the legality of copying television programming, not the retail viability of home video ownership. Sony won the initial case, but Universal Studios appealed. In the 1981 appellate case, Sony was found liable for the copyright infringement of the Betamax users. That’s like sending Lee Iacocca a bill for all speeding fines levied against drivers of Mustangs. Consider the ramifications of making Sony liable for all supposed financial losses resulting from the use of the already widely adopted Betamax platform. At the very least, immediate insolvency. Naturally, Sony appealed to a higher power, the Supreme Court. In what has become known as the “Betamax Case,” the Berger Court ruled 5-4 to ban Betamax and the VCR before deciding to make both sides re-argue their case (a court feature that was only granted in 2.6% of all Berger Court cases. Statistics included for the Court junkies in my readership).

After new arguments and testimonies, one judge switched sides, ruling in favor of Sony. In its final argument, the court cited Mr. Fred Rogers’ testimony as a major tipping point. In his speech supporting the use of home video recording devices, the beloved children’s TV personality said, “I have always felt that with the advent of new technology that allows people to tape the Neighborhood off-the-air, they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others.” And after single-handedly saving home video, DVD and everything beyond, Mr. Rogers dropped his microphone and exited stage left, a curious footnote in the story of the VCR’s ascendancy.

In the 1983 Consumer Video Sales Rental Act, Congress also ruled, independent of the suit against Sony, that video rentals did not infringe upon copyright despite the testimony of Jack Valenti, then head of the MPAA, who claimed that the “VCR is to the American film producer as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.” Stay classy, Jack. In this parallel decision, Congress upheld the Supreme Court’s decision that VCRs and VHS rental constituted “fair use.”

Having lost their days in court, the studios fought back with consistently higher prices for VHS tapes ($79.99 being a consistent price point). When higher prices not-so-shockingly resulted in more piracy, studios implemented a little trick they had up their sleeve called Macrovision. Macrovision resulted in fluctuating screen brightness and fuzzy pictures on tape duplication. Professionals found workarounds, savvy consumers found the latest loopholes, and the vicious cycle continued.

By 1983, VCRs had invaded more than 10% of American homes and despite the hefty price tag for machines, still hovering at around $528[3], the home video market found itself perched atop an active volcano. Paramount took the first step in this brave new world by releasing Raiders of the Lost Ark and Footloose at the reduced price of $29.95. Warner followed by dropping Purple Rain to a similar price point. When these successful A-list films sold well and further stoked the desires for home ownership, Studios initiated a two-pronged attack. They’d sell their biggest hits, the massive moneymakers at $29.95 (“sell-through pricing”), and all other films at $79.95 (“rental pricing”).

The gap would widen even further by the end of the decade with some titles such as Top Gun finding introductory sell-through sale pricing in the neighborhood of $20 (and accompanied by that $8 million-dollar marketing campaign with Diet Pepsi) while all other lackluster performers hovered around the $100 per tape barrier. Despite acknowledging that the $19.95 price point represented the magic number for direct home video sales, studios still attempted to find ways to market cassettes retailing for $79.95 and $89.95 – as if consumers could still justify paying almost $100 after buying Top Gun for $20. Even Return of the Jedi failed to move the expected number of units after CBS/Fox spent $2 million promoting the release[4].

All of these macroeconomic machinations reached a crescendo during the holiday season of 1988. With the availability of E.T. (1982) and Cinderella (1950) for sell-through home purchase, VHS sales revenue surpassed rental revenue for the first time in history. From our perspective where the rental market has become nonexistent, this shift might feel like a minor blip in the grand scheme of 1989, but within the industry this development signaled the proper arrival of the home video generation – and more than ten years after the first VHS tapes went on sale for home consumption, Hollywood struggled to find balance.

All I understood at the time was that the movies I loved in the theater suddenly appeared for purchase where they weren’t before and what kid wouldn’t find that kind of novelty thrilling? Gone were the days of renting a VHS tape and dubbing three mismatched movies onto a cassette tape for maximum squiggle and jitters. (SLP, FTW!) I could walk into a video store in 1989 and find newly released movies I wanted to own for less than $20. Looking back, this may have been my superhero origin story. Having dished out those $100 for an original Superman, my parents also felt the seismic shift. I recall my dad walking into Suncoast Video and buying VHS copies of movies he hadn’t even seen because they were $15 and they must have been good and popular because they were right there in abdominals made from a 2×3 VHS grid for a life-size Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Next to advertisements for Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl, the sales charts in the January 7th, 1989 issue of Billboard Magazine reveals so much about the state of home video, and specifically the VHS market, as it reached the peak of its popularity as an everyday commodity.

vhs sales jan 7 1989

 

Only three of the top 10 selling cassettes – E.T., Dirty Dancing, and Lethal Weapon — featured movies released in the 1980’s. The rest were all pre-1970 classic catalog titles. Note that The Wizard of Oz had been on the chart for 179 weeks since its VHS debut in 1985! If you allow your eyes to filter down to the bottom of the chart, you’ll get a broader picture of the 1980’s video landscape – Callanetics (103 weeks), Jane Fonda (42 weeks), The Grinch (a mere VHS babe at 3 weeks), Mickey Mouse (29 weeks) and Def Leppard (21 weeks). So few sell-through releases hit these charts that a single workout tape had remained a best-seller for two years. I guarantee you know someone that bought Callanetics on VHS. Hell, there’s a good chance that you own a copy of Callanetics and don’t even know it. At that volume they had to be giving them out at baby showers and bar mitzvahs. It remains the number one selling exercise video of all time. (How many husbands gift-wrapped Callanetics to give to their wife at Christmas? Oh, that’s sweet… maybe next time stick to the mildly insulting vacuum cleaner and don’t put a bow on a VHS called ‘I think you’re fat.’)

And now for a semi-related tangent. 

Studying release dates and popularity paints a defining portrait of not just the VHS market, but the 1980’s as a commercial entity. Alongside the expected charts for VHS sales and rentals, the magazine listed sales for “Videodisks” aka Laserdiscs. For the divinely curious, Beetlejuice topped the chart – but I don’t want to talk about Laserdiscs because these weren’t yet on my radar. (We didn’t invest in that platform for another couple years.) I’d much rather talk about the format that Laserdiscs replaced, for all intents and purposes. Remember the RCA Videodisc? The bizarre hybridization of the VHS tape and the vinyl record never evolved beyond a niche market or a video nerd punchline who thought “Betamax” was too prosaic.

Also known as CEDs or Capacitance Electronic Disc – the analog playback system developed by RCA utilized a needle and groove system much like that of the phonograph. First developed in 1964, incompetence and technical difficulties delayed release until 1981. “Incompetence” is a nice shortcut for all the uninteresting nonsense that delays the release of any technology almost beyond its natural obsolescence.

Housed in a plastic casing the size of a vinyl record sleeve, the user would insert the disc into the player like a front-loading VCR. Although the CED had the same number of lines of resolution as VHS (but less than the laserdisc, which as I suggested was just over the horizon), RCA’s superior mastering techniques allowed for a higher quality picture. Grain of salt considering most everyone had a square 27” cathode ray television upon which to play these magical vinyl records.

RCA expected to sell more than 200,000 $500 players upon release in 1981 – however those estimates were made before the rapid advance of the VCR as then-RCA-head Anthony Conrad had decided to proceed with promotion of the CED system as early as a 1977 article in Popular Science. It was determined shortly thereafter that the design required further testing and development, resulting in the four-year crawl to the consumer market.

CEDs proved to be a technological success, more than doubling the data density of an audio LP at what would have been half the price of a VCR in the late 1970’s. Upon their 1981 arrival, and lacking the ability to record, RCA’s vision for the future of home video failed. By 1984 RCA abandoned development after having sold only 500,000 players. Disc sales, however, continued to remain strong – selling more than twice the number anticipated – which led RCA to continue producing discs until sometime in 1986, well after the official demise of the platform.

Remember how the studios sent their army of lawyers to fight the proliferation of VHS and Betamax? All of the major studios hopped on board the tiny CED bandwagon. More than 1700 Videodisc titles were released during those five years. The price per disc started at $19.98 for specialty titles like cartoons and compilations and rose to $34.98 for a single-disc movie and $39.98 for a double-disc. Compare that to the traditional $80 for a VHS tape. You could buy a movie on Videodisc for the price of a blank VHS tape (that would, of course, soon be filled with three dubbed rental tapes in SLP.)

On June 27th, 1986, the final disc pressed at the RCA pressing plant on Rockville Road in Indianapolis, Indiana was a title called “Memories of Videodisc,” a commemorative CED given out to RCA employees at the end of the Videodisc era featuring snapshots of the Rockville facilities, employees and various promotional materials. The disc begins with an 11-minute presentation from Dr. Jay J. Brandinger, RCA Vice President and general manager of Videodisc operations. During this presentation Brandinger eulogizes the format by quoting Machiavelli’s The Prince:

“…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

Now if I’m reaching back into my bag of undergraduate English classes to pull out Machiavelli memories, I’d suggest that is a rather disproportionate response to the format wars of the 1980’s – seeing as how The Prince first coined the term “Machiavellian” to describe the unlimited lengths men would go to achieve or maintain political power. Though adding the traits “duplicitous” and “amoral” to VHS’ character list alongside “jittery,” “degenerative,” and “chewable” adds a little more pizzazz to the behind-the-scenes drama. As RCA’s dream of movies on vinyl died, it’s fun to imagine them sulking in the corner, listening to The Cure, and intermittently monologuing about “bullshit capitalist dogma.”

I predominantly used my grandmother’s CED player to watch Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre as these discs constituted the majority of her personal collection. Whenever she’d babysit, we’d drive up to video rental store that had the discs for rent and pick something out. Looking back, it seems unusual that in a farm community of roughly 2000 people we had two video rental stores and one of them boasted a plethora of RCA Videodiscs and players for rental and purchase. I’ll let you guess which one of these stores survived the longest. (Hint: It wasn’t the one that invested in CEDs.)

Home video, CEDs included, played an integral part in my coming of age as a liberal-minded moviegoer. Without this new accessibility to movies, I’m not entirely certain 1989 becomes such a landmark year and I’m not sure I’m even writing about movies in the 21st century. The movies I was able to own and view on repeat, time and time again, contributed heavily to the desire to go forth and seek out more movies and more movies after that. (Who knew you know you could order VHS tapes from all over the world?! I can pick up this phone to order some bootleg Italian horror movies from Canada!) The sell-through VHS boom didn’t dampen my desire for the theatrical experience; on the contrary, it stoked the fires and made me keenly aware of future theatrical release dates. I feverishly rented movies like License to Drive (the Coreys!) and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport. The more and varied movies I rented the more movies I considered in the theater. I didn’t know it yet – but my cinematic frame of reference approached a Big Bang.

I’m not sure why this memory stands out so acutely, but inside my red Trapper Keeper there lived a small calendar. It was just a single sheet of miniature dates featuring the days of the 1988-1989 school year. Now I’d probably have to squint to make anything out. Upon that calendar I began circling release dates for movies and future rentals. Fourth grade just doesn’t require constant planning and preparation, so I found a way to make the calendar personally useful. To be fair to fourth grade, however, I didn’t consider scholastic planning a useful endeavor until at least high school and even now my documentation leaves much to the imagination.

On that fourth grade calendar I had a specific week highlighted in green – I know it was green because I always kept a green highlighter in my bag. I refused to be a mindless slave to Mola Ram[5], aka the yellow highlighter.

In the event that you were merely a lusty twinkle during this greatest movie generation, Die Hard was a big deal. I’d suggest that it was an especially big deal to prepubescent boys, but that would unfairly discount the prepubescent girls with which I didn’t discuss Die Hard in 1989.

At 9, I wasn’t yet old enough to partake of John McClane’s bloody exploits in the theater. And indeed I tried. The answer to any R-rated theatrical experience resulted in the “Wait for the rental” response. My parents laid down only a few hard-liner policies regarding my viewing habits and the theatrical R-rated line was not one that could yet be crossed. Considering that as children of the 80’s we witnessed in PG-rated movies rampant sexuality, illegal drug use, exploitative violence, more shits than you could measure with a fuckstick, exploding green monsters in microwaves, and the discretization of Santa Claus (credit to Gremlins for those last two), pardon my contemporaneous skepticism over what scandalous madness happened inside an R-rated theater when I’d already seen it all on my 40” cathode ray tube.

I couldn’t have been present when the video-store clerk scribbled Die Hard on the “Coming Soon” chalkboard, sometime in December for a mid-February release date. Memory’s faulty that way; it fills in gaps to serve dramatic ends. I’d have been browsing the new releases, disgusted by the non-availability of Three Men and a Baby, when what-ho! The clerk ascending the stepstool to chalk his scrawl across the blackboard that hadn’t been properly scrubbed since the release of that Ewok movie. I paused and waited for the reveal of the titles coming to a VCR near me. Once the “D” appeared, hundreds of video-store idlers rushed the counter to mark themselves down on the waitlist, leaving me battered and torn, no match for the stampeding horde of elder moviewatchers… and 27th on the Die Hard list.

Die Hard felt like the biggest movie in the world. Because I’d been denied a theatrical viewing, the anticipation created an unparalleled thirst. This was also partly due to the ads airing what seemed like every thirty minutes on television. First for the film, then for the rental. And with my 10-year-old conception of time and space, i.e. loosely based on the beginning and end of baseball season, the wait for anything between October and April felt outside of time. After seeing Three Fugitives during that last week in January, I embarked on a long, cold winter of video store trips and waiting and waiting… and waiting… for Die Hard on VHS. And while it wasn’t traversing broken glass barefoot, the intermittent weeks felt interminable and uninterrupted.

What certainly didn’t help was that dearth of theatrical releases to distract me from the “Coming Soon” Chalkboard. Conversely, I might have been too focused on Die Hard to take into account the slumbering greatness appearing at a theater near me. A few of these movies would go on to become beloved essentials in my home video library. I’m still not sure how Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure escaped me. Joe Dante’s R-rated The ‘burbs obviously waited for home video, and honestly I hadn’t yet properly become acquainted with Tom Hanks beyond The Money Pit. I do really like The Money Pit, but there’s nothing there to re-orient my limited worldview.

While I did attempt to cajole an adult or two to take me to see Who’s Harry Crumb?, all driving-age relatives and family friends opted out of the opportunity to embrace that John Candy movie. (Which I’m sure you’ll mostly all agree was their loss. To quote Harry Crumb himself, “A book cover is only skin deep. Sometimes you have to read every word to get the whole picture.”) Was I really the only one willing to admit a palpable pre-teen crush on Iron Eagle and Summer School star Shawnee Smith?

And here’s the boondoggle, a grand irony after all the straight-to-video quality grand guignol, I don’t remember my first viewing of Die Hard. I remember the build-up and the aftermath. After the release of the VHS tape for purchase, I dogged that tape within an inch of its life. I could recite all of Hans Gruber’s best lines. I lobbied for a Hans Gruber business suit at Halloween 1989, but it was decided the outfit might have been in poor taste.

You’ll be happy to know that this story has dramatic closure, despite the gap in memory. Two years later, Die Hard 2 become my first R-rated theatrical experience. It’s utterly confusing to me that I can reminisce about so many eccentric details but remember nothing about that first Die Hard viewing. Like I said, memory’s a funny thing. It’s also a cruel and unforgiving prankster. This irony appears to me in nightmarish visions of talking horse with the voice of John Candy. (In February of 1989, all human life seems to revolve around John Candy as if he were a celestial body and not just a larger than average human.) Around the same time I would have finally seen Die Hard, I watched a mostly forgotten but completely inept movie by the name of Hot to Trot (1988) starring Bobcat Goldthwaite, Virginia Madsen, Dabney Coleman, and the voice of John Candy.

I can’t even fathom the heavy sighs that accompanied my rental of Hot to Trot. I loved the Police Academy movies, much to the detriment of my early comic sensibilities. Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985) and Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986) featured a primal manimal by the name of Zed, played by none other than the Bobcat. This led to the immediate rental of Hot to Trot and a nightly parental prayer than Bobcat would make no more starring vehicles for me to rent.

Around this same time my dad presented me with a VHS collection of Francis the Talking Mule movies. That’s generally how I felt my way into classic films. I’d become interested in a lesser or referential 1980’s film and my parents would present me with a reputedly more palatable alternative. I find myself doing the same thing with my daughters now. I didn’t recognize the value at the time but allowing them to discover derivative contemporary programming gives them an opportunity to build their own identity – while simultaneously allowing me to supplement with my own experience. As a parent I find it important to use contemporary benchmarks as a gateway drug. I’ve also learned that if you do not allow unfettered television privileges, they will watch anything once given the opportunity. (I have not tested them with Francis the Talking Mule… yet.)

References to older, classic films appear in all forms of media. Sure – in many ways, they’re placed there for the benefit of the parents. If parents enjoy a show, they’re far more likely to present that programming to their kids, but that doesn’t mean the obligation should end there. Talk about where these things come from. I was able to introduce my kids to The Marx Brothers and ultimately other silent and classic comedians like Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Abbott and Costello as a result of a brief Grouch Marx routine in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The short’s called “Wideo Wabbitt” from 1956, by the way, in which a cigar-chomping Bugs imitates Groucho doing an introduction to You Bet Your Life featuring Elmer Fudd.

We tend to assign a greater value to our own nostalgia because that nostalgia represents the formative foundation for our entire frame of reference. With proper exposure to older media, we understand that it doesn’t, but we still subscribe to the feeling that our 1989 bested every 1989 that had ever been. And it goes without saying that all future 1989’s will pale in comparison. Allow me to set a baseline. Would anyone rightly proclaim Hot to Trot the righteous heir to the throne of talking horse cinema? Don’t answer right away.

First of all, claiming ownership of the talking horse throne is like planning to dress up as Menudo for Halloween 2020. At no point during the last 30 years did that sound like a sensible goal. (Neither was it sensible in 1989.) Hot to Trot was just the talking horse movie I knew. Only because my dad responded with Francis the Talking Mule did I then have the opportunity to understand the origins of Hot to Trot. I also came to realize that we’ve been laughing at the same talking horse jokes for 50 years. My parents watched Donald O’Connor and Mickey Rooney; my friends and I embraced Bobcat Goldthwaite. From an objective point of view, that’s an unequal substitution, but we, as pre-teens in the late 80’s embraced Bobcat Goldthwaite because we loved him in Police Academy. Maybe we just connected on a level beyond words, like the apes and the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

(I never thought when I woke up this morning that I’d write about the healing properties of Hot to Trot, but I’ll accept your gesture of continued readership as indication that you too have accepted the healing properties of Hot to Trot, at least temporarily or in theory.)

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[1] It would cost you roughly $200 in 2020 dollars to own your very own copy of Return of the Jedi in 1986, which some fans would deem acceptable now that George Lucas has locked away the original cuts of these films where no one will ever find them.

[2] We now take this for granted and have slowly ceded our control back to the studios by eliminating the “clutter” of home video and opting instead for subscriptions to streaming services. Convenient and clutter-free, the streaming services have given studios the ability to take back their movie libraries, bury them behind paywalls and slyly undermine the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Paramount. In that 1948 case, the Court found that the studios had violated anti-trust laws by controlling the production, distribution and exhibition of their movies.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/1984/11/12/business/innovations-spur-boom-in-vcr-sales.html

[4] ‘Marketing ‘Top Gun’ Cassette by Aljean Harmetz Jan 15, 1987

[5] In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the heart stealing Mola Ram made his subjects drink blood from a skull in order to enslave their mind. The highlighter parallel could not be clearer.