SXSW Q&A: Josh Johnson, Rewind This!
For people of a certain age, there’s a lot of nostalgia around VHS tapes. And though it might seem like a dead format thanks to DVD, Blu-ray, and digitally streaming media, VHS isn't dead yet: Many people have hung on to old tapes, or continue to build collections that they watch with their VHS player. Many of those enthusiasts appear in Josh Johnson’s documentary, Rewind This!, which debuts this week at SXSW Film. The documentary's a fun and fascinating look at the history and impact of videotapes. mental_floss spoke with the director about VHS-related myths, the influence of VHS, and why those tapes were so darn expensive.
mental_floss: What inspired you to make a documentary about VHS?
Josh Johnson: The idea came out of the realization that I had a lot of friends who were still purchasing and acquiring VHS tapes, even though it had been a dead format for a number of years. And the reason that they were doing that is because there were thousands of films that weren’t available any other way—they had yet to be released on newer formats. So if you’re passionate about film, it was the only way to watch certain things. And that was something that struck me as being sort of interesting and not necessarily broad public knowledge. So there was that contemporary relevance of videotape that I hadn’t really thought about very much before.
And then, in thinking about that and starting to work on this as a documentary concept with my partners, we thought about the fact that the home video revolution was something that really changed the world and how people consumed media, but it had never been documented or put on film before, so the idea of being able to trace its history and also show the contemporary relevance of videotape seemed like it had the potential to be a satisfying feature.
m_f: You interviewed a number of people who have pretty incredible VHS collections. How did you find them?
JJ: The first thing that we did was ask people we knew in the local community. The film started in Austin, Texas, and we knew a lot of people who were already involved in this world. And what we found is that every person we talked to had four or five other recommendations of people we should talk to. There was this community of people that were still really passionate about collecting and acquiring this content, so it kind of took care of itself after a certain point. You know, once people were aware of the film, it became very easy to contact them and in a lot of cases they would contact us directly.
m_f: How much did you know about the history of VHS, and the early format war between Sony’s format, Betamax, and JVC’s format, VHS, before you started?
JJ: I knew a lot about it just as a film obsessive and somebody who had read about all aspects of film history throughout my life. The thing that I discovered was certain things that were sort of urban legends or things that were widely reported as facts that weren’t necessarily facts. So there are certain details about the influence of pornography on video and some things like that that turned out to not necessarily line up with the popular accepted story.
For example: A lot of people have argued over the years, or it’s just an accepted fact—quotes around the word “fact”—that Sony refused to license pornographers, and that was one of the determining factors in why VHS won out over Betamax. But there’s actually no historical record to indicate that Sony refused to do that. And there’s evidence that some adult films may have been released on Betamax. So it looks like [what made VHS the winner] was the amount of time that you record on VHS tapes and the affordability of VHS tapes, not that breakdown between who was willing to allow pornography to be accessible.
m_f: You have a ton of clips from old VHS tapes in the movie. What was the process of converting those into digital like?
JJ: We used a device that is essentially a VCR, but it’s also a capture device, so we were able to put in a tape, play it, and then record, via a PC, the moments that we wanted to capture. So the process of actually getting that footage into contemporary technology is fairly easy. The most difficult thing was actually when we wanted to do things like show examples of tape wear or degradation, because we didn’t necessarily have examples that exactly fit what we were looking for—so we had to make them ourselves. And we really wanted everything to be authentic. So what we did is actually find tapes with moments that we wanted to utilize this example and we would actually take the tape out of the cassette and physically manipulate it—I would open the front part of the tape and pull out the tape between two fingers and then I would sort of twist it back and forth between my thumb and forefinger—which would recreate what might happen if you rewound a tape in a certain section over and over again. There was definitely some trial and error [in figuring out the process of warping a tape]. It wasn’t an exact science, but it actually turned out to be fairly easy once you got the hang of doing it.
It's so different from now—if you scratch a DVD, that section just won't play. But video could degrade and degrade and degrade, you could do so much damage to it, but it would still play. Over time it would slowly decay, and get worse and worse, but it wasn't instant. It was this very slow, organic process.
m_f: What's the average lifespan of a VHS tape?
JJ: The statistics on that seem wildly different, so it's hard to say for sure. When we talked to archivists, they said that tapes that were mass-produced in the '80s are already going to start showing signs of wear, and [would be damaged by] not housing the material the way they're supposed to. But then there are some people that argue that it has a greater lifespan than a lot of digital formats—that there will be some decay, but that these tapes will still be playable years from now. So there's a lot of conflicting information, but they're certainly sturdy enough that they should last 30 years.
m_f: We did a story recently about Nixon meeting Robocop, which was part of an event for the VHS release of the movie. What got the most response from people was not that Nixon met Robocop, but that the price of the Robocop VHS was $99. In the process of making Rewind This! what did you find out about why videotapes were so expensive, especially when they were relatively cheap to produce?
JJ: When home video first started, the idea that you could own a movie and watch it whenever you wanted was revolutionary. So, since for a few dollars people could see it at the theater one time, to own it was such a privilege I think they just placed a higher premium on it. They thought, you know, this is allowing someone to permanently own something that ordinarily we’ve had control over, so it had that higher price tag. That continued for quite a while. What really changed it was this sell-through concept that started in the porn world, but then carried over into the more legitimate film business. The idea was that if you marked the price lower, you could move more units and it would still become more profitable for you.
m_f: When Betamax first came out, and later VHS, people at movie-making studios in Hollywood were not happy. In fact, at congressional hearings about the technology in 1982, Jack Valenti—who was the head of the MPAA at the time—said "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." That seems a little extreme. Why did Hollywood flip out so much?
JJ: There was this intense fear on the part of major motion picture studios that home video was going to devalue their product. They had this entire industry that was based on publically exhibiting motion pictures and then returning them to a vault, and they maintained ownership every step of the way. So the fear was, that by allowing people to have access to [technology], they would stop going to the movie theater or it would no longer be something that was as prized. And their fear was that it would destroy the theatrical market. But what ended up happening is it created a whole new market—there was new money being put into it, and box office continued to grow and thrive. So far from being something worthy of demonizing, it actually doubled their profits once they committed to it. But the fear was that their entire industry was built on an infrastructure that might get completely destroyed by the new technology.
And I think for a lot of major studios, one of the appealing things about living in a space where we’re returning to streaming from a corporate source, is that they now have ownership again. They can distribute it to you into your home, but ownership is still theirs—you don’t have anything physical that you can keep. They can give and take away at will. It’s interesting to see how, with all of this new technology, it’s kind of going back to the exact same way that the film industry worked in the '30s.
m_f: This technology has been around for so long that a lot of us probably forget what it was like before you could just pop a tape in the VCR at home. Can you paint a picture of what life was like before VHS?
JJ: Prior to the advent of home video, the only way that you could see films would be in a theater or on television, and you were really at the mercy of the schedule that was determined by the television networks and the motion picture studios. So a film would play, often for a very long time, at a theater, and then it would be gone. Unless the film had been so successful that it would warrant bringing it back out and rereleasing it years later to capitalize on that interest, it was entirely possible that you might never see it again. Your best option would be to hope that it would play on television, and that it would be at a time that was convenient enough for you that you could be home to sit and watch it.
Once home video came out and made movies so accessible to us and gave us ownership over them, that immediately changed the way that we perceive movies. Now there’s a sense of entitlement in regards to our media: We want to have ownership, we want to be able to watch things whenever we want. But as recently as the late 70s, that entire concept was inconceivable. Nobody had even fathomed the idea that you could have a film in your house or watch it whenever you wanted. Home video really is as major a revolution in film as sound or color or any of these things—potentially, it’s even more significant than that, because those were just technological developments that alter the way that the films are created. But home video revolutionized the way that films are absorbed and distributed, and the way that audiences see and perceive them. I would argue that it’s probably the most significant revolution in the entire history of film from its starting point.
m_f: What do you think is the lasting impact or legacy of VHS?
JJ: The legacy of VHS is that it made film domestic for the first time. It allowed people to consume things on their own schedule the way they wanted to. That’s something we’ll never be able to go back to again. There will never a time again, I believe, where we don’t feel a sense of entitlement and ownership over how we consume our media. So I think that’s the lasting impact, more than anything else. But I think the other impact of home video is that it’s made people so much more knowledgeable about the totality of film, because it made film accessible to people who otherwise would never have been able to see certain things. If you didn't live in a major metropolitan area, you weren’t going to have repertory cinemas or art houses or access to foreign films. Now you can really live almost anywhere in the world, and home video has made that accessible.
m_f: And the fact that people could actually make movies with a camcorder and a VHS tape—even my friends and I made a series of really bad music videos. It was fun!
JJ: That’s how I started as well—it was just making things on a camcorder when I was 7 years old. There was a whole movement of shot-on-video filmmaking that got launched in the early '80s that continued for a long time. Now, with digital video, it’s not really quite the same thing—it’s more and more getting closer to professional cinematography. More and more films are shooting digitally, but in those early days, video had such a limited look, and it was immediately a stigma, because it looked so inferior, but it did allow really ambitious people to make work that they never would have been able to afford to otherwise, and that’s a huge part of the legacy—the way it leveled the playing field. It was a great equalizer in filmmaking.
m_f: What kind of creative solutions or DIY filmmaking did you have to use to make this film happen?
JJ: The entire production was entirely DIY. We started shooting without any funding, several years ago, just because we were passionate and wanted to do it. And when it got to the point where we needed to start traveling outside of our immediate area, we needed to start finding creative ways to finance those trips. The first thing we did was an art show here in Austin, where we had local artists produce home video-inspired artwork, and the sales from that art show funded the first leg of our travel, which was mostly to the East Coast, to New York, and then partly to the West Coast. And then we hosted a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse that funded the rest of our West Coast travel. And that brought us back, and we were able to edit together a teaser trailer based on what we had shot, and launch a Kickstarter campaign for the remainder of our travel, which was to Canada and Japan. So the whole project has been three people working in isolation, figuring out various ways to fund different portions of the production.