Editor's Note: The mission of TheaterJones is to cover the performing arts in North Texas, but over the years we have dipped our toes into the waters of film. We've always reviewed feature films and documentaries related to performing arts, such as feature films of plays by Shakespeare and other writers, musicals, documentaries about choreographers and other arts-makers, filmed performances from National Theatre Live and Metropolitan Opera, and even performing arts-themed feature films, some of them Oscar winners. (Black Swan, anyone?) We've also started covering some local film festivals, including the Dallas VideoFest, Oak Cliff Film Festival and, most recently, the third South Asian Film Festival.
So it seemed like a good time to start a film column as we're expanding our roster of columns penned by local creatives. Luckily, we scored none other than the king of the local film world, Bart Weiss, founder of Video Association of Dallas and Dallas VideoFest and a film professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
In Film Notes, which will run on the first Monday of the month , Bart will discuss film festivals and events, trends, industry issues, the politics of filmmaking, the intersection with live performance, and other film topics. You won't see red carpet reports or reviews of mainstream movies or even most indie films that swing through DFW. There are plenty of other places to find all that.
Now, on with the show.
Dallas — A few weeks ago, Premiere Video closed its doors. For those of you that have never been there or have not heard, this was not just the best video store in town but one of the best in the country. Every once in a while, you can get a sense of who the film serious cinephiles of Dallas are, like at the screening of The Stalker at the Texas Theatre. Pretty much any day at Premiere you could find this community, and owner Sam Wade presided over us.
If there was a film so obscure that he did not have it, he would get it for you, and he would suggest what you wanted or needed to see. He might have a foreign version of a film and could rent you a machine that could play it. He had a machine that could buff the DVD so it would have a better chance of playing though without stopping. To say that Premiere Video will be missed is not quite the same as saying we will miss the art deco El Corazon in Oak Cliff. There are many other great Tex-Mex restaurants and many that have cool architecture. But with Premiere gone it is the end of an era. An era that started not very far away from Mockingbird and Greenville Ave.
Home video had a major impact on the idea of home entertainment, on the film biz, and on cinema. Video tape had been used for video acquisition long before home video arrived. In TV studios, they recorded two inch, then one inch, then many other formats of videotape. Video was much cheaper than film, and of course could be recorded on over again. Indeed, things like the first Super Bowl were not deemed worthy of keeping so someone recorded over it. It was hard to edit and kind of a pain. In the ‘70s Sony made a Portapak that was relatively inexpensive and allowed people to shoot and edit ½ inch video and play it back on a TV. Thus, began the video art revolution. Two groups took to these Portapaks; artists like Nam June Paik used it like time-based sculpture, and activists like TVTV used it to document what they say and show it to the world. While this technology was grungy, it put TV in the hands of artists and these same instincts of working with video exist today.
There were several precursors, but eventually it was VHS and Betamax for recording off-the-air TV and playing it back. The famous 1984 Betamax court case allowed people to record video for their own use and do something new: time shift.
And then came the home video biz. Studios first fought against home video, but realized that it could be profitable. In its heyday home video profits were much higher than theatrical (movie theater) revenue. Indeed, the theatrical just set up the lucrative home video biz.
Then there was the VHS vs. Betamax battle. Two incompatible formats, and Sony lost with its Betamax, which was better quality but did not have a longer play mode quickly enough.
Once home video broke, there are home video stores everywhere, and many retail stores and even dry cleaners would have a home video area there were both profitable and made sure people came once to get the video and once to return.
While most of it was rental, there were three kinds of buyers of cassettes: Cinephiles, who wanted to watch the title over and over, or just have it on the shelf to show off their tastes; parents whose kids would not let them return the video; and people who watched the Jane Fonda exercise tape repeatedly. For the first group, LaserDisc had more cache, mostly because of the criterion collection with good titles good transfers and these new extras, outtakes and director commentary. LaserDiscs were great but didn’t catch on because the price of the player could not get cheap enough.
The first time I saw home video rental was at the Granada Theater, which used to run repertory films—two classic films each night. In those days, everyone had the Granada calendar on their fridge. One day the manager put a glass case in the lobby and rented out classic films—little did he know that this would kill repertory movie going.
On Oct. 19, 1985, the first Blockbuster store opened on Northwest Highway. It changed everything. What made it different is they had a large collection. Blockbuster gave us the oppression of too much meaningless choice. When a new hot title came out they did not have one or five copies—they had a whole wall of the film. Blockbuster changed our movie-going experience; people spent 30 minutes trying to figure out what to see then went home and had a simulated cinematic experience with the film. Sure, there were people who could go in and out of the big blue store in a few minutes, most of us hunted and negotiated. I would take students to watch people selecting films to see what it was that they based their screening decisions on. It was not reviews. (Speaking of reviews, around this time I wrote a home video column for the Dallas Times Herald.)
While home video gave us access to so much cinema, it was not a great visceral experience. Picture quality was low-res and sound was worse. But you could see the classics or delve deeply into horror and other genres. As with all changes in technology, we got some changes in the art work. With home video, we got a genre of direct-to-home releases high on sleaze and horror and low on budget. And fans loved it.
VHS and Betamax morphed into DVDs, which were much better and did not have to be rewound. They have much better sound and picture quality, but were unreliable. Then of course we got Blu-ray discs, which give us great sound and picture. Then came Netflix, first with DVD rentals by mail and then films streaming. The Netflix model was great because they had pretty much everything and sending it back in the mail was easier than going to the store.
While streaming was cool for a while (HBO had HBO Go for quite some time) it was really Breaking Bad that made streaming STREAMING. So many people did not get to see it when if first aired but keep hearing how wonderful it was so they had their first binging experience. Binging is not quite like watching films at, say, a film festival—it is devouring a complete series, whether you want to or not. The end of each episode is like crack—you know you should go to sleep but you can’t help staying up all night. Streaming and the growth of cinematic TV go hand in hand.
Along the way many cities had one video store to find the eclectic, indie, alternative and cool media, but one by one they are fading. I love film and I love Premiere Video but it has been a while since I have been there. I really hope Sam finds a way to reopen somewhere soon. I will go. I promise. If not I hope he finds a good home for the collection. Perhaps the Bill Jones collection at SMU or Top Ten records in the Cliff.
Whatever happens I want to publicly thank Sam for providing me with so many hours of meaningful art and entertainment and for making Dallas a better place to live.
» Bart Weiss is an award-winning independent film and video producer, director, editor, and educator who has lived in Dallas since 1981. Mr. Weiss has taught film and video production at Texas A&M’s Visualization Lab, Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin and Arlington, Dallas Community College District and West Virginia State College. He currently serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, serves on the Board of Directors of the University Film and Video Association, is a past Vice President of the Texas Association of Film and Tape Professionals, founder and past president of the West Virginia Filmmakers’ Guild, and co-founder of VideoFest and the Video Association of Dallas. He has been a video columnist for The Dallas Morning News, The Dallas Times Herald, United Features Syndicate and KERA 90.1 FM Radio in Dallas. Mr. Weiss received an MFA in Film Directing from Columbia University in 1978 and a B.A. from Temple University in 1975. Bart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
» Film Notes with Bart Weiss will run the first Monday of the month.
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