The Past of the Future

The news this week was filled with stories of what was being called Back to the Future Day,   specifically October 21, 2015, which is the date that Doc Brown, Marty, and Marty’s oft-forgotten girlfriend Jennifer visit in the first section of Back to the Future Part 2.  A lot of attention has been paid to what BttF2 got right and wrong as well as to the 30th anniversary of the first Back to the Future, and I really have nothing to add to that beyond what I already said in this Pick of the Week from August.

Instead, I want to talk about why we remember the films in the first place.  Yes, they are good movies.  The first one may actually be perfect if THIS ARTICLE is to be believed (and I do agree with many of its points); however, many great films have come out over the years. 

But the films of the mid 1980s and beyond have had a distinct advantage when it comes to getting into the pop culture consciousness of the planet.  I was a kid in the 1980s, and outside of a few notable exceptions that aired on TV, I was cut off from the films of the past.  Maybe my mom and dad wanted to show me their favorite films from their childhood, but they couldn’t even if they wanted to.

My children, however, were given a thorough film survey class covering the classics of the 1980s on up. 

Why the difference?


Specifically, the mid-1980s saw the rise of the home video cassette and the accompanying mass marketing of movies by studios to the home video market (After they failed to stop VCR with a lawsuit.).  By 1986 (the year after the release of the original Back to the Future), studios had figured out that there was money to be made selling movies directly to consumers rather than just to video rental stores.  The trick was to get the price point right.

To put that in perspective, in the early 1980s, my parents bought me a previously-viewed VHS of the original Star Wars as a birthday present.  The cost?  $90.  That zero wasn’t added by mistake.  It cost $90!  For a previously-viewed tape!!!  If the Internet is to be believed, that’s the equivalent of $225 today.  Mom, Dad, I loved the tape and watched it over and over again, but you got RIPPED OFF!

Back to the point of this, in THIS New York Times article from 1986, a buyer from Target indicates that the proper price point is $19.95 for a popular movie.  At the time, Hollywood was selling most popular titles for closer to $80.

The proper price point was indeed hit, though, and people started buying movies like crazy.  Pretty soon, it was easy for someone to own a library of their favorite films, and this trend continued with the advent of DVD, which then made it easy to own entire seasons of TV shows as well. 

Once we owned the movies and shows that we loved, we naturally began to show them to our friends and children.  At least in my case, I’ve then seen my kids show those same films to their friends.  Now, with services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, we have literally thousands of movies available to us with a click.

Back to the Future is still loved 30 years later, even if the technology that first brought it into our homes has become laughably obsolete.  But without the VCR and the subsequent availability of reasonably-priced copies of the movies we love, the classics of our past would have long since faded into memory.  Back to the Future Day owes its existence to the video tape. 

Of course, very few of us here in the future of 2015 still have the ability to play them.  Technology does march on.  I just wish it would get marching toward my Mr. Fusion.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter