Saturday, November 01, 2008

Watching Movies Isn't like it Used to Be

How do you watch movies?

Prior to 1980, the only answers to that question would have been either “at the movie theater,” or “on television.” If you wanted to watch a recent movie without commercials, your only option was the movie theater. Movies played on broadcast TV, which was the only kind of TV available before HBO came to households in the late ‘70s, were all years old and filled with commercial interruptions. Most of the time, they were heavily edited, too.

When I was a child in the 1960s, I looked forward to seeing the new releases every weekend at the Pixie Theater. For 50 cents, I could sit through a double feature, usually a couple of Disney flicks or maybe a pair of those beach movies with Frankie Avalon or Tony Curtis.

But around 1979, a new option became available. The VCR, or video cassette recorder, had been on the market for a couple of years to record shows from live TV. But it didn’t take long before vendors started to rent theatrical movies on video tape. Rental fees were about five or six bucks per movie back then. And the number of titles was abysmal.

There were no actual video rental stores yet. The Hollywood movie studios were in court trying to get the VCR banned because of their eternal fear of copyright infringement. So the only places to rent movies were at specialty stores. Most had fewer than a dozen titles from which to choose, mostly skin flicks.

But when the Supreme Court ruled against the movie studios, they began to take an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them attitude. They started releasing movies on video cassette by the thousands. So people could now watch movies in the theater, or wait a few months until the film was released on video and watch the same thing at home, commercial free.

There were problems, though. Notably, the VCR is a sequential-access device. If you want to watch a particular scene, you have no choice but to fast forward through everything that comes before it. And then, of course, you have to rewind the tape when the movie is over before you can view it again.

Secondly, video taped movies were almost always edited to fit the square TV screen, meaning parts of every scene were cropped off. And the quality was no better, and often worse, than a regular TV show, not nearly as good as watching the same flick in a theater.

In the 1990s, the DVD came on the scene. It cured the quality problem, allowing movie watchers to enjoy the picture in as high a quality as the old standard-definition TV set would allow. And DVDs are random-access devices, so you don’t have to rewind and you can skip to a scene instantly.

Added to the better picture quality, DVDs were also capable of producing theater-quality surround sound. Coupled with a big-screen TV and a 5.1 surround sound system, you could watch your favorite movies with nearly the same quality as in a theater, minus the sticky floors and strewn popcorn.

Today, however, there are many more ways to watch a movie at home. The DVD still rules, but the new Blu-Ray disc provides high-definition quality to match up with the latest high-definition, wide-screen TV sets.

In addition, you can stream movies from sources such as Netflix to your computer and watch them any time you want. Or you can order them to be shipped by mail, so no more going to the rental store and then having to remember to take your movie back before the late fees kick in.

The very latest way to watch a movie is to stream it from Netflix using the latest version of Xbox due out later this month. That means you can by-pass the computer screen and watch movies directly on your high-definition TV without having to use a DVD or any other physical medium.

Compared to when I was a kid, it sure is much easier to watch a movie these days.

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