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The Evolution of Home Theater – Big Tech of the Small Screen

[Class Assembling] Welcome to Filmmaker, I’m John Hess
and today we’ll look at the history of home theaters – bringing movies from cineplex into
the living room. In our world of Vimeo, YouTube, Netflix and
Hulu – virtually anything you want to see is just a click away. Never before has so
much content been available to so many with such ease. So as we begin our journey, winding
back the clock to the beginning of the previous century, we have to imagine a different time
and a different relationship to media. Movies began in the Nickelodeon – a term that
mashed up the word nickel and odeon – a Greek word for a theater for musical performances.
For just five cents, audiences could be entertained with a variety of short films and live acts.
Nickelodeons were a major part of the American culture – with an estimated 8,000 Nickelodeons
in the US by 1908 and 26 million regular attendees by 1910. But as quickly as Nickelodeons exploded on
the American conscious – they quickly went away. As a network of film distribution came
into place theaters found that Audiences tended to favor the feature length film and you didn’t
need the live vaudeville acts. Of course, the longer films were more expensive to make.
Prices for admission necessarily skyrocketed – doubling to 10 cents but now you were seeing
feature films with a couple of shorts made with great skill and craft in a much more
elegant setting – the mindset of the time demonstrated by this ad from 1915 from a small
unknown upstart – Paramount Pictures. Here, casting off the old dingy Nickelodeon of the
past for the new Paramount Pictures Movie Palace. So for a generation or two, movies were something
you got out of the house and went to. Only the rich collectors had home movie projectors
and private collections of films were mostly scraps, interesting bits from films here and
there to show off to their friends at dinner parties. Even the filmmakers themselves saw little
value in their films once the screenings were done. Part of the problem was the inherit
danger of storing old film. Nitrate film was used at that time, which was extremely flammable
– it would even burn underwater. And as the stuff decayed, it turned into essentially
gunpowder leading to some famous unfortunate accidents such as the fire in 1937 at 20th
Century-Fox Studios which wiped out all their pre-1935 film stock. The fact was studios
just needed the storage space for new films more than they needed the archvies so they
just destroyed old films. An estimated 90% of all silent films ever made are considered
lost and gone forever. Even though Television had been invented and
regular public broadcasts started by the BBC as early as 1929, the Great Depression and
World War II prevented TV from becoming an everyday household appliance until the late
1940s. But Television became a great mass produced product as the economy turned from
Guns to Butter in the post war years. And the American Public served as a great consumer
base the Baby boom shifted populations away from the cities and into surburbia. TV was
an easy and free delivery tool of entertainment straight into the home. Movie theater attendance plummeted dropping
50% from 1946 to 1955.. At first the movie studios tried to get in on the TV action but
the FCC was hesitant to hand broadcasting licenses to movie companies that had just
lost a Supreme Court anti-trust lawsuit in 1948 over their anti-competition practices
in dealing with theaters. Instead, it was the radio broadcasters, CBS, NBC, ABC, who
got in on the Television game. So immediately Hollywood saw TV as head on
competition and they responded by entrenching themselves and refusing to sell rights for
movies for broadcast and forbidding their stars to appear on the new electronic medium.
The numbers were grim, tickets sales were down, productions slowed to a crawl and the
studios levied heavy layoffs. At the close of the 40s, it looked like Hollywood was about
to implode with TV laying down the final straw. But out of challenge comes innovation. To
compete with Television, the clever filmmakers changed tack and focused on what they could
do better – spectacle. Widescreen aspect ratios, first popularized by Cinerama in 1952 and
Cinemascope in 1953, Stereo and multichannel sound, Larger screens going from 30 foot to
50 foot screens, Full Adoption of color, and even the first wave of 3D – many of the aspects
of our modern film experience began as a way to get people away from their homes and into
the theatre. But Film’s little brother of Television
had grander aspirations and still wanted to be in the movies. Broadcasters had a lot of
time to fill – why not show an old movie and sell ad space. And for the newer, leaner Hollywood
which grew out of the devastation of the late 40s, TV wasn’t seen so much as competition
but a new revenue stream, with studios beginning to sell rights to television as early 1956.
Then On September 23, 1961, NBC premiered Saturday Night at the Movies – featuring the
1953 film How to Marry a Millionaire starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable.
Broadcast in “Living Color” How To Marry A Millionaire was the second film to be made
in widescreen Cinemascope. Unfortunately for viewers at the time, the film was severely
panned and scanned – the process of zooming in and lopping off the sides of the image
in order to fill a 4:3 screen with a portion of the original 2.35 image – this wrecks havoc
of the original compositions – often losing actors who are positioned on the edges of
the screen. Regardless, Saturday Night at the Movies led to countless spinoffs from
all the broadcasters – practically one for each night of the week. The studios had found value in their old catalogs
and Television had found relatively cheap content to fill time. But most importantly,
a major social shift was occurring – the idea that now you could stay home and catch a movie
– an idea that would cement itself in the world’s conscious with the introduction
of tape. The Tape Empire and Digital Successors Video tape for professional broadcast use
was invented by the Ampex Corporation in 1956 but the machines and tape reels were far too
expensive for personal use. Consumer electronics would catch up starting in 1970 when Sony
released the U-matic, a system designed for home use that recorded onto bulky ¾” tapes.
This was followed by the short lived Cartrivision in 1972. Then came the big two and the famous
format war: In 1975 the Sony BetaMax followed a year later by JVC’s VHS in 1976. Now the technological stage was set for watching
movies at home on demand… But studios didn’t realize the potential market yet… When tape was originally sold to consumers
– it was as a way for viewers to “time shift” their favorite TV programs – recording shows
to be watched later – Cartrivision had dabbled in a rental system with movies on prerecorded
tapes but the company folded soon after their launch so nothing came of it. There just didn’t
seem to be any thought of actually selling movies on tape. That changed in 1977 when
Andrew Blay of Magnetic Video convinced a financially struggling 20th Century Fox to
license 50 of their titles to be released on prerecorded BetaMax and VHS tapes. Blay’s company took off and the film video
tape market was born sparking off the video rental industry. At first, Hollywood assumed
people were only interested in renting films. But it didn’t take long for studios to realize
there was some serious money to made in stocking up people’s personal video libraries. Distributors
cut the prices of video tapes from $80 a piece which were priced to sell to rental houses
down to $19.95 and below and saw huge increases in sales. In 1980, Walt Disney got into the
business dipping into their catalog of family films. The venture was so successful 20th
Century Fox turned around and even acquired Andrew Blay’s company Magnetic Video and
reorganized it into 20th Century Fox video in 1980 which merged with CBS Video another
giant in 1982 to become CBS Fox Video. The Video Market was big big business. Not long after VHS hit the market came the
first commercially successful optical disk format – the LaserDisc originally marketed
as the MCA DiscoVision in 1978. Still an analog format but superior in many ways to VHS tape,
LaserDisc was a big hit with cinephiles. I think you will not be wasting your money to invest $600 in a LaserDisc player because the quality is so much better. That everytime we mention a cassette on this show or our regular show. I feel like people are getting cheated in a way because they’re not buying a LaserDisc, they’re not getting the sound… Unfortunately LaserDisc never really did get
a foothold in North America – The extra costs of the players and the LaserDisc themselves
meant that market penetration never rose above 1% of households despite the perceivable quality
advantage. The next breakthrough for home media would
have to wait for computers and compression to bring digital to video. In 1993, roughly
10 years after the release of the audio CD, Philips introduced the VCD – using a new digital
compression called MPEG-1 to compress movie titles to fit onto two discs. VCDs enjoyed
a brief window of success until Hollywood realized these VCDs were really easy to pirate
– MPEG1 had no copy protection whatsoever. Luckily in 1995 an alternative came in the DVD Introduced by Philips, Sony, Toshiba
and Panasonic, The DVD used MPEG2 compression on an optical disk which was roughly the same
size as the popular audio CD. With MPEG-2 Compression capable of storing video, multiple
audio tracks and extras – the DVD did what Laserdisc couldn’t and quickly became the
preferred method of distributing movies for the home. But as our story progresses, the
time scale gets more and more compressed as DVDs, once king of home entertainment would
bow out to High Definition and digital delivery in only a decade. High Definition is the first format to begin
bringing a real cinematic experience into the home. There were many experiments in HiDefinition
in decades past but it was digital that enabled the transmission of a higher resolution signal.
HDTV as outlined in ITU-R Recommendation ITU-R BT.709-2 in 1990 – sported a maximum resolution
of 1920×1080 – a major departure from the 640x480ish standard def resolution. Also new
was the introduction of a new 16×9 aspect ratio. 16×9 or 1.78 as a decimal was derived
as a geometric mean between old Academy 4×3 (1.33) and the wide Scope aspect ratio of
2.40. This 16×9 aspect ratio was a compromise – a way in which images pillared box to to
4×3 or letterboxed to 2.40 would both get the roughly the same number of pixels: 1.5
Megapixels of the 2.1 Megapixels in an HD image. With HDTV standards in place, Surround sound,
HD streaming over the internet, and Bluray discs (released in 2006 and went on to win
a much publicized but relatively short and uneventful format war with HD-DVD in 2008)
you had the elements necessary to create a really great Home Theater Experience that
were certainly miles ahead of turn of century nickelodeons and movie houses.. But for those that want full big screen experience
at home, home digital projector is the way to go. Unfortunately with the HD 16×9 compromise,
the films that Hollywood created to have the largest, most immersive feel – those shot
in the scope 2.40 aspect ratio – end up being the smallest content on a 16:9 screen, framed
by black letterbox bars that are essentially wasted projection. Fortunately there’s a
optical solution from a company called Panamorph. Working in the same fashion as a cinemascope
anamorphic lens, Panamorph system uses the projector’s scaler feature to stretch the
image vertically and eliminate the black letterbox bars – this utilizes the full power and resolution
of the projector. Then a specially engineered Panamorph anamorphic lens goes in front of
the projector stretches out the projection to a 2.40 aspect ratio restoring the correct
screen geometry. This process results in projections that are 33% wider and 80% larger without
sacrificing picture quality, and a true recreation of the filmmaker’s intent creating that big
immersive feel right in the home. A clever use of tried and true technology to solve
new digital challenges. We’ve taken films out of the cineplex and
brought them into our homes and even our very own pockets. The media rich culture of today
may not even be recognizable compared with the early days of home VCRs let alone the
pioneers of filmmaking. The fact is, changes in technology have inherently changed our
relationship to film. The story of cinema is a story of and unrelenting change. Even
as we speak, we’re entering another radical shift with digital distribution – no one really
knows how the cards will fall. It’s going to be challenging times of course, but with
all great challenges, comes great opportunities. Now more than ever, is the time to go out
there and make something great. I’m John Hess and I’ll see you at


  1. vfx747 Author

    Please do a video on the "obsession" of many low-budget filmmakers with making digital video look like film and what are the elements you need to achieve the film look(color grading, lighting, etc). I think this topic would make for a very interesting and technical video like the ones you have on the subject of color. Thanks!

  2. Jarrod Tetreault Author

    I thoroughly enjoyed this episode, and the jaunt back through my youth (I remember thinking laser discs were so cool…. I used to push the lid release pins so I could open the top and look inside. I don't know what I expected to see, but I was kinda disappointed when I figured out it was just a record). Good Job, as usual Mr. Hess.

  3. Author

    Maybe this is a juvenile request; can you make a video about all the work that is involved in producing a you tube filmmaker IQ clip? " This is definitely inspiring to create something great and professional"

  4. Wizkid490 Author

    It's interesting that the big movie studios seem to always bet on tech that the consumers don't want, and against the ones that we do.  

    We want audio cassetes, they say that home taping is illegal in will kill the music industry.

    We want MP3 players for our legally obtained content, they want us to pay again to take our music with us.

    We want recordable VHS/Beta, they want them made illegal.

    We want VCDs, they want DVDs because we could write our own VCDs (they naturally delayed DVD ripping and authoring as long as they could, too).

    We want to stay with DVDs so we can pay once and get our money's worth, they want us to pay $600 for a DIVX disk player (which is naturally incompatible with our DVDs) that will invade our privacy (has to be connected to the internet) and make us pay per view (after we pay for the disks, of course).

    We want to be able to share our videos online, and exercise our constitutional right to free speach, they want that made illegal because some people MIGHT abuse it.

    We want efficient file-sharing technologies so we can share our legitimate content with friends and family, they want them made illegal because they could be used to share potentially copyrighted material (unsurprisingly, they ignore all of the potential legitimate uses).

    Now to be fair, the jury is still out on the last two, but I think that all of the others demonstrate that the companies don't care about the consumer, only making a buck.  Ironically, movie companies have actually benefitted from the rise of CDs, DVDs, and online media, as they typically earn MUCH more than the theatrical revenues…  I think that it's also fair to say that none of these will be the death of any industries, like those same companies continue to insist.  

    Don't believe me?  Look up: Home taping is killing music!  And it's illegal.

    (Just FYI, neither part of the above slogan is true.)

  5. nikosvault Author

    Very nice introduction!

    I wish you had touched on the digital sound of LD and more importantly, the revolutionary invention of the “Special Edition” release with supplementary material.
    This figures to be a major part the survival of home video formats against the video-on-demand.

  6. richard murphy Author

    "headphones" that was the day enjoyed everything in full  Surrasound and still do. Oft forgot how important for Film Buff`s Headphones are!

  7. MitchAndo96 Author

    There doesn't seem to be much benefit in using something like that 'Panamorph' anamorphic lens on a home theatre projector. Anamoprhic lenses are useful when recording at 2.40:1, as you can make use of the entire film or sensor. But once it has been distributed on a blu-ray for example, it is stored as a 1920×1080 file with letter boxing (1920×800). There is no gain in resolution by digitally stretching it on a projector and then optically de-stretching it through a lens, you are actually more likely to loose quality depending on the pixel up-scaling method. You might as well just magnify your projector so it fills up a 2.40 screen (if you have one). I have nothing against advertising, but can anyone point on the purpose of this product?

  8. Charles J Gartner Author

    11:26… hollywood is so fucking greedy.  You could already pirate videotapes.  The same thing happened when tape cassettes came out, the movie industry threw a fit about people recording music off the radio while ripping off their artists and having no inherent talent of their own.  Dead Kennedy's then released an album in an attack on them, purposefully leaving one side blank on one of their albums, encouraging buyers to record other material to that side of the cassette.  Thank god for the internet… ditch your netflix account folks… there's plenty of websites with free content.  

  9. RMoribayashi Author

    Many projection TV's use a technology last seen on the Moon and the Space Shuttle,  mechanical color TV. A black and white projector with a spinning colored cylinder behind the lens. That's how lunar cameras on Apollo 13 to 17 and early Space Shuttles worked. A B&W camera with a spinning six color disk was turned into color TV when it got to Earth.

  10. RMoribayashi Author

    Digital compression had another unforeseen effect. Analog TV satellites only had a few channels so networks would pay millions of dollars for long term contracts. Compression meant that each channel could now carry five or six networks. Owners either filled them up themselves or leased the extras out. That's why we have so many cable channels today.

  11. Sakura4anime25 Author

    10:27 That's how I feel when people who still watch DVDs ask me what makes Blu Rays so much better and if they're worth the additional money lol. I always have some comparison pictures ready to show the difference that high def picture makes as well as some sound clips to show the benefits of remastered sound. Now with the rise of 4K it just keeps getting even better :p

  12. juffan Author

    Wish you would have touched more on the format wars between Betamax and VHS, and HDDVD and BluRay, and why one was better than the other. Also, the Panamorph plug was confusing.

  13. The Cat Man Author

    VR/AR headsets are the next new display method, although they need to be higher resolution. Since the video can be rendered as a texture in a 3D virtual world you can make the image as big or as small as you want. Image quality is limited by the resolution and FOV of your headset. Current headsets suck in regards to resolution and FOV, but the generation after should hopefully be better.

    The downside is that unlike a TV each person needs their own headset. If headsets become popular then it's not that big of a deal though, like how everybody carries around those hand computers.

  14. Golden Retriever Author

    DVDs are great but they they're far too delicate

    I find it ridiculous that they didn't put these disks in a protective casing that goes into the home device like floppy disks

    And I'd like to mention that I would think the military has use for this stuff and it would more than likely be a problem if one of these disks were damaged

    I don't know if I'm the only one who thinks this is a problem I'll shut up

  15. Ronstar308 Author

    Good video, as ever. Intriguing, though, that in a presentation made in 2013, DVD is written off as having ended around 2006 – and yet it's only now 2017 that DVD has been beaten as the home market leader.

    I certainly would have said in 2013 that DVD was about to fall off the same cliff edge as VHS did in about 2007 – but to this day there's still miles and miles of superstore shelf space stocked full of the shiny discs!

    I actually think that DVD could be here to stay for the foreseeable future as there simply isn't anything replacing it in quite the same way – available in a format that almost everyone can play back and right there on a shelf you idly walk past that makes you stop and think for a second "Yeah, go on then…"

  16. videolabguy Author

    8:00 – Nice photo! Looks just like MY Umatic deck. In fact, it is! I shot that photo on the floor at the company I worked at, at that time, Prime Image in San Jose. I still have that deck in my collection somewhere. Heeheeeheeee!

    I've been in the video trade from the early 1970s. Had every format you mentioned.

     I also still have a few Cartrivision tapes, partial machines and still have one complete unit. Shipped my other Cartrivision VCR one to Indiana only a couple of weeks ago. I own the oldest home recorder possible, the Wesgrove VKR-600. It was a kit sold in 1964. Worked awful!!! If it worked at all. 5 minutes on 2400 feet of quarter inch tape traveling at 120 IPS, ten feet per second! Ah, nostalgia.

    See more old video recorders at and be sure to watch my recent YT videos to be truly amazed at old video tech! In my latest project, I found an Indian Chief hiding inside a magic bottle made by RCA in 1939! I successfully got the poor fellow to see the light of day once again! New video coming tomorrow! I promise, you will love it.

  17. wado1942 Author

    Sadly, the Panamorph solution is not much more than a marketing gimmick IMO. Yes, the movie uses the whole imaging chip, but it's still an 800-line image digitally stretched (causing degradation) to 1080. Then it goes through cylindrical optics (more degradation) to make it wider. I suspect you'd get a better image just using a slightly shorter conventional projector lens and a 2.4:1 screen.

  18. Keith Naylor Author

    For years large 16:9 TVs have been promoted as Home Cinema – this is a bit of a con. In the showroom they look stunning with their 16:9 screen totally FULL, and showrooms rarely, if ever, have letter boxed movies showing!
    So, it's only when you get your 'home cinema' home and put on your Star Wars Blu Ray that you realise a 16:9 TV makes cinema scope movies SMALLER than the screen.
    The difference becomes Quite Irritating as your viewing size constantly changes between 16:9 TV programmes and your DVD and Blu Ray movies, the MAJORITY of which are in 2.35 scope.
    There is a solution!
    ALL TVs should be 21:9.
    All formats fill the screen from top to bottom, and 2.35 spectacles like Star Wars etc fill the screen completely!
    Now that is home cinema!
    People MUST keep asking for 21:9 TVs and create a demand. Only then will the makers of all the 16:9 TVs stop and listen and give viewers what they really need – a TV to cope with all formats sensibly.
    KAN 7.19 UK.


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