May 10

1975 — Debut of Sony Betamax videocassette recorder (VCR)


Howard slides back a wooden panel to reveal what would be a walk-in clothes closet in other people’s homes.

It’s still a closet, but not for clothes. He’s had special shelves built, to maximage storage of collected films by his favorite directors. The oldest films are by Hitchcock; the most recent are from genre favorites such as Lucas and Spielberg, Cronenberg and Carpenter and Craven.

He even has a shelf of low-budget favorites, heavily represented by Roger Corman, but with a small row of rare films by Bud “Budget” Preston.

The Preston films are only in Betamax format. Although a cult favorite, that director’s output was never released in the popular VHS format, was considered too artless to be preserved on videodisc, and was largely forgotten by the advent of DVD players.

Most other film exist here in multiple formats, some boxes sealed in plastic, others open or with price stickers or “used” labels obscuring sections of cover art.

You realize you’re supposed to be impressed, but you’re mostly overwhelmed. Howard calls your attention to a prominent, central shelf, clearly intended to showcase the most valued items in his collection.

He pulls out a sealed clamshell box. The artwork on the cover is instantly recognizable: it’s the most influential genre film of the past forty years. “This was the initial release, in Japan,” Howard informs you. “They used the poster for the American release, but the recording’s supposed to have a few alternate takes that were only screened in Japan…for obvious reasons.”

You don’t know what these obvious reasons are, but you’re not interested enough to ask. Frankly, you’re distracted by how many copies Howard owns of this single film: not just a dozen, but several dozen, spilling from one shelf to the row beneath. Versions in different languages, in different formats, with different special features.

But in each instance, it’s all the same movie, with slight variations. A new mini-documentary; a “special remastered version” with a slight, incremental improvement in picture or sound quality.

“I wonder,” you say, trying your best to seem impressed. “I wonder what it was like to be a collector in our parents’ day. Back then, you could pick one singer or one record label, and you could own everything in that category. That’s impossible now: the companies are always ready to introduce a new iteration, to get you to buy the same product, all over again.”

You put the thirty-seventh copy of the movie back on the shelf, sliding it between the 30th anniversary release and a dual-layer re-edited version.

Howard has remained silent for a while, and you’re afraid you’ve insulted him. Instead, as you realize when he starts to respond, he’s been thinking over what to say. “I started as that kind of collector. I was a Betamax completist, basically buying every genre movie as it came out in that format. Everybody thought that was the format that would ‘win,’ since those tapes were more compact. When the larger VHS format took over the market share, and they stopped producing Betamax tapes, I was devastated. I felt abandoned. Left behind. Like everything owned was worthless.”

His words offer more of a heartfelt confession than you expected. Sometimes people reveal too much about themselves, and it only makes you sad.

“Maybe that’s why I keep buying things again in the new format,” Howard continued. “I’m afraid to lose again. I’m stocking up on my movies, the same way somebody stores food and water in case the zombie apocalypse happens.”

The closet, with all its colorful boxes of tapes and discs, starts to seem claustrophobic. You want to leave. Because you’ve realized there’s something Howard doesn’t know.

“I’ve got more movies than this,” Howard says. “Tons more. In the basement, and in an air-controlled storage unit I rent each month.”

He really doesn’t know. You don’t want to be the one to tell him. But you’re his friend. He should hear it from you.

“Howie, this is a really nice collection. I know you’re really proud of it. But I guess you haven’t heard the latest. I read online that they’ve announced a new archive format. All the companies are switching to it. I’m so sorry. Every other format is going to be pretty much obsolete in a few months. You’re going to have to start all over again.”