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AUSTIN — While society is in the midst of a digital revolution, the innovations ushered in by the creation of the VHS tape has gone largely unheralded.
Activities we take for granted today, such as recording live TV, the act of rewinding and fast-forwarding, and the ability to watch films at home at our leisure all began with the consumer market boom of videocassette recorders and the VHS tape in the 1980s.
Rewind This!, which premiered this week at SXSW, takes an affectionate and celebratory look at the VHS medium through the eyes of hardcore collectors, film buffs and filmmakers (including Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, who’s even more stunning without the ghoulish makeup). The documentary chronicles the outdated medium’s history and the repercussions felt as the home video market began to infiltrate households across the globe.
Mostly self-financed, Austin director Josh Johnson and producers Christopher Palmer and Carolee Mitchell also hosted a VHS-themed art show and held a Kickstarter campaign to raise extra funds to pay for travel to conduct interviews across the Unites States, Toronto and Tokyo. As the Kickstarter description of the film states, they want Rewind This! to be “the definitive account of the home video revolution and a showcase of its continuing legacy.”
The three filmmakers spoke to The Hollywood Reporter at SXSW about the cultural and business impact of the home video market, how they sought to dispel rumors and misinformation, and the plight of thousands of films, including many cult favorites, that never made the leap from VHS to DVD or digital video.
The Hollywood Reporter: The documentary has been called a “love letter” to the VHS medium and the campy, early ’80s horror film genre. What drew you to this subject matter?
Josh Johnson: The VHS tape really revolutionized the world as we know it. Not just in terms of movies, but in terms of how we perceive the media and how we relate to that media. It created a sense of ownership that didn’t exist before and that’s really revolutionary. It was important to all of us growing up. So it was important to tell that story and get it out there since it had never been put on film. There’s also this contemporary relevance for videotapes, because there are so many tens of thousands of titles that are only available that way. They never made the jump to DVD or Blu-ray. So as a film fan, if you’re interested in exploring the underside of cinema, you still need to go back to videotapes. That’s the only way to see a huge portion of cinema history.
Christopher Palmer: Something we always thought about was the level of control that began with VHS and Beta. The ability to watch it whenever you wanted to watch it. You could rewind it and see it again. That full control is something that has continued on through the technology evolution and has led us to our ability to watch Hulu, Netflix and YouTube videos whenever we want to. But it all started with this technology.
THR: You interviewed a number of VHS collectors, film aficionados, filmmakers like Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, and even Elvira herself, Cassandra Peterson. How did you go about picking the individuals that would best represent the VHS medium for the film?
Johnson: It was mostly just considering whom the options might be and then figuring out who we all agreed would make the most sense. A lot of it was also availability. You may have 12 people that you’d like to talk to and only eight of them may be available during the window of time that you’re going to be in that region of the country. So a lot of it was really very pragmatic. In terms of how we came up with people, it was really a variety of different ways. We initially started by talking about the people that we knew, but then also because of social media and other factors, we were getting suggestions from other people that were starting to follow the film and each person we would interview would also recommend several other people. Sometimes we would add those interviews while we were in that area of the country. It was really an organic process that we approached from a lot of different angles.
THR: The film dissects the history of the VHS tape through specific topics such as the Betamax-VHS format war, the adult film industry’s influence and success, the lack of video preservation and the start of the direct-to-video market, among others. From a storytelling standpoint, what was the process of choosing the topics that are discussed in the film?
Carolee Mitchell: We knew we needed to cover the adult film industry. We knew we needed to cover VHS versus Betamax. But we also found that we would go in with a set of questions that we wanted to ask and then someone would say something that would trigger something else we needed to cover as well. There were some things we thought would be awesome that no one ever really touched on or really had a passion for. We felt our focus changed as we talked to people and learned more.
THR: What was the most difficult chapter to flesh out?
Johnson: I think the Triple-X section was really difficult for a lot of reasons. The main one being that there’s a lot of inaccurate information out there. It was initially not a business that had heavy documentation. It was something that wasn’t necessarily regulated or kept track of. There are lots of theories about crime being involved in that, too. That topic was very difficult to get to the heart of. Figuring out what, in fact, was true and what was most relevant about the adult film industry and the videotape industry. Also, there aren’t a lot of living subjects that were there at that time that could speak to it. So it was difficult to find people to talk about it and then to make sure that the information we were getting was accurate.
Palmer: There’s a lot of inconsistency in the historical context. So we read a lot about the history as much that was out there, as far as references go, and we sought out whether it was really true or not. We heard a lot of rumors about certain things and figured out [through our research] that this is what really happened.
THR: The film is chockfull of rare and archival footage, including some entertaining commercials from the period. How challenging was it to acquire and include that footage?
Johnson: There was a range of difficulty. Some things were difficult to find and some things were surprisingly easy. What was more difficult than anything, believe it or not, was getting access to the pornographic Japanese clips that are in the film. That actually took us six months to do. It was the last piece of footage that we got because the company that manufactured it didn’t have any in their stock. They hadn’t maintained an archive, the filmmakers didn’t have copies and it was never released in the U.S. So essentially working through a translator and attacking the Japanese video collector market was the only way we were able to get those tapes and capture that footage. A lot of the other vintage footage is actually available online or through archives. So it’s more accessible than one might think. It was actually some of the commercial tapes that were released out in the market that didn’t seem to exist anymore that were actually the most difficult to find.
THR: Most, if not all, of the films you focused on in the documentary are cult favorites, campy horror movies or incredibly hard to find films, is that because mainstream studio films already made the transition to digital so there was no need to discuss their significance?
Johnson: Exactly. Because most mainstream films appeal to a wide number of people, those are exactly the titles that a studio is going to invest in remastering and bringing out again. There are certainly exceptions of classic films that are still stuck on videotape. The majority of that video content is stuff that maybe wasn’t successful at the time, and certainly isn’t known enough for them to feel it would be successful now.
THR: Do you think there’s a comparison of VHS to vinyl records? Vinyl collectors are just as passionate about their medium as the VHS collectors you featured in the film. It may not be a fair comparison, but both are considered archaic mediums that still have an audience.
Mitchell: Their only similarity is that it’s an older format that has come back. The big difference is VHS has only come back in discussion; we’re talking about films that are on no other format. With vinyl, you’re actually talking about something that is superior in quality in a lot of people’s view than what you get on CD. In no way are we saying that VHS is superior to Blu-ray or DVD.
THR: A portion of the film is also dedicated to the direct-to-video market, notably those famous Jane Fonda workout videos. In your opinion, how impactful was the direct-to-video market?
Johnson: The idea of a direct-to-video market had a huge impact on a massive scale. It was the first time something that wasn’t a feature film was created exclusively around this idea of a home video. And it didn’t appeal to film fans, it appealed to a certain age. Every mom in the country had that Jane Fonda workout video. So it was the first time that something other than a feature film — something created entirely for the home video market — had massive high dollar success.
THR: VHS and home video in general in the 1980s was the first time film content ownership shifted to the consumer, which also created the issue of piracy. Through your research, has anything really changed in the fundamental behavior of how we share and consume media?
Palmer: I think tape technology was the beginning of the discussion. Whether it’s a videotape or cassette tape, it’s the idea that if you own something, can you make a copy of it? Can I share it? What does it mean to share? And at what point are we breaking the law? I think that’s still something we’re trying to figure out. This was the beginning of that discussion.
THR: So what was the main reason VHS won the format war? Was it simply longer tape duration?
Johnson: Yeah, exactly. It was the longer recording of the tape and, at a certain point, the price point was slightly better. But for the average consumer, it was that ability to record longer on a single tape. They would prefer being able to record more content than higher quality content. And that’s what happened.
Rewind This! will have its final screening at SXSW on Saturday, March 16.
View the trailer for Rewind This! below:
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