First Films

New film formats come along every era but your first time with one usually sticks with you.

For my generation a common question to a music fan was ‘what was the first record you bought?’

But what about film experiences?

Yesterday London listings magazine Time Out asked readers on Twitter what their first DVD was and it triggered some memories not just of actual films, but the manner in which I first saw them.

In my life time I’ve seen movies projected via celluloid and digital prints at various cinemas, rented and then bought VHS tapes, DVDs, Blu-ray discs and digital downloads.

There’s a whole generation growing up now in a time where the digital quickly replacing the physical and between 2013 and 2015 it is estimated that celluloid as a projection medium will effectively die.

Remembering the first time you saw a film in a certain format not only triggers an important memory but also reminds us of what those experiences and technologies meant.

Here’s my list. (If you want to use Twitter for this use the hashtag #firstfilms and my username is @filmdetail)

FIRST CINEMA EXPERIENCE(S): The Empire Strikes Back

Given the amount of films I’ve seen in cinemas down the years, it might seem odd that I have difficulty remembering what the very first one was.

I know the cinema (The Rex in Berkhamstead), even the screen, and I’m pretty certain it was The Empire Strikes Back (which would’ve made it sometime in 1980) but being just 3 years old, I can only recall a few sequences and images.

After closing in 1988, the cinema was reborn years later and in 2006 Garth Jennings would film some scenes from Son of Rambow there.

Not long after I saw Superman II (which opened in the UK a few months before its US premiere) and the following year E.T. at the Hemel Hempstead Odeon.

I clearly remember being in the auditorium and a big deal at the times, but one that I couldn’t fully take in at the time.

My first ‘pristine’ cinema memory was Return of the Jedi (again at the Rex, Berkhamsted) and Octopussy (at the Watford Odeon) during the summer of 1983.

Never Say Never Again and Jaws 3D followed later that year.

I can also recall weird stuff that no-one ever talks about now like Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (“It’s High Noon at the end of the universe!”) which for years I was concerned was actually a figment of my imagination, until the IMDb and Wikipedia confirmed it really did exist.

Part of the fascination of the cinema then and now is pretty simple.

The big screen and sound is overwhelming and at its very best provides a lift like no other art form in human history.

At a young age, it is almost a form of magic that images so big can exist in a large room near to where you actually live, before immersing you in stories and locations anywhere in the world (or even outside it).

What’s interesting to note if you look at the biggest releases of this era, along with the PG-rated blockbusters I was allowed to see they were also a lot of adult films which I couldn’t get in to due to the restrictive ratings system in the UK.

Home video was about to change that.

FIRST VIDEO(S): Blade Runner and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Before the advent of home video, the only way you could watch films outside of their theatrical release was a repeat run or on television.

Sony actually developed the idea of recording video signals on to magnetic tape in the 1970s, but the major studios were vehemently opposed to it.

They felt it would kill their existing theatrical business (although ultimately home video became a huge profit source they relied upon) and sided against Sony’s Betamax format in favour of JVC’s VHS.

Plastic tapes inside the home were here to stay for the 1980s and 1990s.

Amongst the films on TV that I taped with the intensity of a projectionist responsible for a gala premiere were: Raiders of the Lost Ark (on ITV in 1985) and Escape from New York (on ITV in 1986).

Although I was young at the time (8 to be precise), the advent of the VCR was fairly mind blowing.

It not only meant you could actually record films on late at night and watch them the following day, but with rental stores opening up it was possible to see all the films you missed out on at the cinema.

As someone who regularly scanned Teletext (like an early version of the web but with 3 digit codes instead of URLs) for the latest cinema and TV listings, this was another revolution.

Although there is a generation that complained that they couldn’t work a VCR, these were people who couldn’t read the manual and didn’t think that recording films after the watershed (9pm) was incredibly exciting.

But I was that person and the first film I recorded off the TV was Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and I have to confess part of me didn’t think it would work.

Not because I doubted the instructions, but because there was something incredible about waking up, checking the VCR and watching a film in your own home.

This was what it was like to be a young film fan in the mid-1980s.

But if you wanted to see newer films (at this point the release window was 12 months) you had to go down to the video rental store as retail came later in 1989.

Sometime in 1985 I remember being given a big list of films the local renal store had which must have been around 200 titles, which was not quite Netflix or Amazon levels, but still mind-blowing for an 8 year old.

I’d like to say I picked Blade Runner as my first video rental because I somehow knew it would become an enduring classic, but the fact was it starred Harrison Ford and seemed along the lines of Star Wars.

This was seven years before the restored director’s cut surfaced in 1992 and I was too young to fully take it in, even though at that time many MTV videos were ripping off its visual aesthetic.

But it was still exciting that films were available outside the whims of broadcasters.

Amongst the rental highlights of this era were Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1986 (which I saw before the first two), Beverly Hills Cop in 1987 (a full year before BBC1 removed *all* the swearing for its unintentionally hilarious network TV premiere) and Aliens in 1988 (mainly because it starred my friend’s dad).

When I later moved within walking distance of a video store, things got really serious.

New releases such as The Pick-Up Artist, Robocop, Maximum Overdrive, Predator and The Princess Bride were exciting to watch but there was also something about browsing the shelves.

The big black cases of Warner Bros movies, the CIC logo on Universal & Paramount titles and excitement of seeing if a new in-demand release had been returned was all heady stuff.

Notice how this CBS/Fox trailer for films on VHS employs a lot of the (now dated) video effects that were emerging in the 1980s:

One thing I can’t imagine going back to was the squarer aspect ratio for all those widescreen movies, even if a small minority of modern directors like Andrea Arnold and Gus Van Sant have gone back to it for effect.

Of course this notion seems comical in the current era of digital plenty, but maybe the idea that films were inherently special was partly forged in these trips where you couldn’t just rent anything as a lot of the hot titles were not available every time you went to the store.

When I switched schools in 1988 all the talk in the classroom was of the massive VHS titles of that era: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (girls and boys), Dirty Dancing (mainly girls), Lethal Weapon and Nightmare on Elm St III (which lazy people referred to as “Freddy III”).

Companies were easing back-catalogue titles into sell-through and the first retail video I owned (or had bought for me) was The Good, the Bad & the Ugly in early 1988 and it is still a special film to me for all sorts of reasons.

For a few years you couldn’t really buy a new release rental video (unless you wanted to shell out about £80) as film companies felt that retail would cannibalise the rental market for brand new titles.

When Warner Bros broke the mould by releasing Rain Man to buy and rent on the same day in November 1989, it marked the beginning of an era when videos really became ubiquitous until the start of the DVD boom.

There were even annoying anti-piracy ads back then:

FIRST DVD: Glengarry Glen Ross

Although it will probably go down as the most profitable home format in history, I wasn’t an early adopter when it came to DVD, as the cost of the players seemed too high at first.

The bestselling titles early on included Enemy of the State in the spring of 1999 and later that year The Matrix, which really gave the format a boost.

It wasn’t until December 2001 that I got my first DVD player and in retrospect I can’t believe I left it that long.

For some reason I bought Glengarry Glen Ross as my first DVD (maybe it was cheap?) which was cropped to the 4:3 aspect ratio and weirdly on the Carlton TV DVD label.

The US distributor New Line Cinema would shrewdly sell off the foreign rights to their films to UK distributors, but why Carlton (a British TV company) distributed it is still something of a mystery.

I know their former boss Michael Green was a big film fan but it seems somewhat random that they distributed various films such as The Shawshank Redemption.

Early DVDs I remember renting included Hannibal, whilst Fight Club and Memento other discs I bought and kept coming back to (especially the latter).

FIRST BLU-RAY: There Will Be Blood

People may forget that the industry upgrade to a single HD format was a mess, which wasted two very valuable years, wasted a lot of Toshiba’s money and confused a lot of consumers.

Part of the problem was convincing people to upgrade the DVD collections just a few years after they had done the same with VHS tapes.

Not only that but you needed a new TV and player to do so and if that wasn’t enough studios and manufacturers were split on to what format to go with.

Sony’s Blu-ray eventually won the battle when Toshiba finally caved in during early 2008.

It was a few months later that Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic about a deranged oil man became my first Blu-ray purchase in anticipation of actually buying a player.

I knew it would look great in HD and wanted to wait until Christmas until the prices of players came down further.

When I played it for the first time, I was slightly disappointed in the loading time of the player and disc, which was later solved by a software update.

It looked fantastic, but those initial problems would foreshadow why HD formats wouldn’t take off in the same way that DVD did.

But although I had my doubts about HD, it has rekindled my love of older films, especially the digital restorations which breathe new life into classics.

Titles such as North By Northwest, Apocalypse Now, Baraka, Pierrot Le Fou, Ben Hur and Taxi Driver are just some that look spectacular.

Ironically, the digital process – by which the negative elements are scanned, restored frame-by-frame and then mastered at high-resolution – revives the filmic look of the original and in some cases is superior to even revival prints I’ve seen in the past.

Here’s Martin Scorsese talking about the format and the history of home video:

FIRST DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: Crazy Heart

This one is a bit of cheat because I had a Blu-ray disc of Crazy Heart and (legally) transferred the digital copy on to my computer, using the code provided on the triple play edition.

In truth, I’m not a big downloader even though the internet is the inevitable delivery system of the future.

Why doesn’t it cut it for me just yet?

The picture quality on Blu-ray is superior and you also have the problem of the large file sizes chewing up your hard drive.

That said, a digital copy of a film on a device like an iPad is handy if you want to analyse a film closely, as there’s something tactile about touching and looking at it on those kind of devices.

A smartphone is still too small a screen for long form video and I tend to agree with David Lynch’s opinion about watching a whole film on an iPhone.

I still think it is relatively early days for digital downloads as the market is dominated by only a few key players Apple, Amazon and Netflix.

This means the studios who control the content are wary of surrendering control to a dominant gatekeeper in the same way the major music labels ceded power to Apple.

At the moment the main digital initiative amongst the major studios is UltraViolet, which essentially allows users to buy digital versions of films.

Practically, this means that if you buy the UltraViolet version of a film, you can – in theory – download it to an internet connected device be it a TV, tablet or whatever device you choose.

At the moment Sony Pictures, Universal, Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros. and Lionsgate are all signed up to this.

Disney and Apple, who’ve had a close relationship since 2006, have opted for their digital file service called KeyChest and one can assume it will be closely tied to iTunes or maybe even the rumoured Apple television set.

Someone who currently works for the home entertainment arm of a major studio told me recently that the major challenge they currently face is a psychological one.

This particular studio has digitized most of its film library for downloads to various devices (especially gaming consoles like X-box and the PS3) there is still a resistance.

Older consumers used to buying discs in shops are still sometimes wary of digital downloads because they can’t physically touch them and worried about passwords not working or some technical glitch stopping them from watching films they’ve bought.

Another aspect is the recession hitting younger consumers who have been been an important part of driving new formats.

Then there is the storage issue: a disc can sit on your shelf for years but what about that download you bought on an older computer?

Users of iTunes – easily the most successful digital distribution platform – will attest that transferring you MP3 libraries between different computers is something of a nightmare.

This has led to Apple introducing iCloud, which stores all your media purchases in one place, but it is still early days for that to become fully mainstream.

Despite the huge cost savings that digital distribution will provide, perhaps it will take until broadband speeds get even faster, TVs get less fiddly and the average consumer (not just early adopters) get comfortable with the idea of replacing their discs.

So, what are your first films?

> Find out more about VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and UltraViolet at Wikipedia
> From Celluloid to Digital