A Vision of the Home Video Era, and the Mighty Impact of Marshall Discount Video Service

VHS History, Video Era History, video mailorder -

A Vision of the Home Video Era, and the Mighty Impact of Marshall Discount Video Service

By Robert Freese

 

When I recently spoke to Greg Luce for a piece I wrote for The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope Magazine (Winter 2020, #113), he recalled the early days of home video, way before he started Sinister Cinema, and painted a picture of what it was like for film lovers turned film collectors in that era.

 

He reminisced about a time just prior to the home video explosion in the early ‘80s that saw Mom-and-Pop video rental stores appearing overnight on every street corner (surely the most fun and exciting time of the VHS/Betamax era) and way before the corporate takeover of the business by the big chains in the ‘90s (cue that gold and blue). Luce recalled a time when film fans would set up their machines to record whatever movie was broadcasting on their local television station, and then taking that recording, making copies of it, and trading it with other film fans through the mail all around the country. It was a film society where someone in Peoria, Illinois would trade a copy of Godzilla vs Mothra they taped off TV for a copy of The Haunted Palace someone else in Portland, Oregon taped, usually with the local commercial breaks intact. (And he remembered that blank tapes at the time could run you twenty to twenty-five dollars apiece, so it was an expensive hobby to have. That would equal about thirty-five to forty-five dollars today.)

 

 

 Photo courtesy of Jon Keegan.

 

Also, he remembered renting a 16mm print of a film, putting a sheet up for a screen and recording the movie with a camcorder to get a film on tape. This is a time in home video that few people remember. (Anyone who ever bought “bootleg” videotapes of hard to find movies from dealers at comic and movie conventions probably ran across a bootleg like this from time to time. I certainly did, with a copy of Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet. The screen would shake from time to time- no doubt from someone walking behind it and bumping it while it was being recorded- with the sound of the projector clicking away just under the soundtrack. As annoying as it was, it was still awesome to finally see a film you had no other way of watching.)

 

The popularity of the VCR grew incredibly quickly and soon we had all those shops and those horror sections with all the garish boxes and the person behind the counter who got to know us and was able to recommend movies based on what he knew about our movie watching tastes. Most households had one VCR and most households inhabited by a film fan had multiple units, and that was to enable the luxury of recording movies you rented and having your own copy to watch whenever you liked.

 

 

 

 

Many people built giant film collections this way, some cramming up to three or four movies (depending on running times) on each tape. With nearly twenty-thousand video shops just in the U.S., it didn’t take long for some collectors with disposable income to begin building their libraries with actual, pre-recorded videocassettes.

 

This was an expensive endeavor. At the time, there was no such thing as “sell-through,” which means, priced affordably for anyone to purchase. Videotapes, both VHS and Betamax, were sold through distributors to video shops for rental. Sometimes these shops would retire tapes, and sell them as “pre-used/previously viewed,” but that practice was still in the future. This was before the Blockbuster mentality of filling the shelves with sixty copies of one title so everyone could get it the week it came out. Most shops paid upward $99.95 ($79.95 was the average for a new film on tape) for new movies, and even older movies, movies we now see on DVD, on every budget label imaginable because they are in the public domain, could run from $49.95 to $69.95. Those tapes had to make their money back as quickly as possible in overnight rentals so the shop owners could afford to keep bringing in new and varied stock.

 

At the point of market saturation, and companies seeing that not just video shops were willing to purchase tapes, the idea of selling to everyone came about and some companies were issuing popular titles for more reasonable prices like $24.95 to $39.95. This was popular enough to eventually establish the idea of “sell-through,” and older tapes were re-released at lower prices, and then some new releases came out at a $24.95 price when they were first released (I’m thinking specifically of three back-to-back releases in 1989, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Batman and Lethal Weapon 2). Before long, videotapes were affordable, and you were even able to get them at McDonald’s with a purchase of a value meal. (A copy of Ghost, anyone?)

 

 

 

 

When the time consumers would purchase pre-recorded videotapes arrived, many companies showed up promising to fulfill whatever videotaped desires one had. Whatever your taste for entertainment was, you could find it on videotape. (There was no Internet, no brush of a keystroke to find whatever you were looking for instantaneously. It took time, energy, and effort to go around to shops and stores to find what you were looking for.)

 

One company that horror fans who read Fangoria magazine in the early ‘80s were no doubt familiar with, if only from their distinctive ad displayed prominently in the front of the magazine, usually on the readers’ letters page, was Marshall Video Discount Service. It was always a distinctive ad, never any graphics, just a wonderful list of newly released film titles that got any horror hound drooling with excitement. (In fact, the early years of Fangoria’s Dr. Cyclops video cassette review column always thanked Marshall for providing the videos that were reviewed, no doubt an even swap for the prominent ad space in each issue.)

 

 

 Image courtesy of Robert Freese.

 

Whenever I picked up the newest issue of Fangoria, even if I were just flipping through it, I’d instinctively always go right to the Marshall ad to see what new titles were being released. (Even if you weren’t purchasing cassettes from them, the lists kept you up to date with the new titles to look for when you were prowling the vid store racks searching for your next Saturday Fright Night double feature.)

 

When pricing started to come down, it was the Marshall ad that alerted diehard fans that VHS copies of Halloween and Basket Case could be procured for the very low, low price of $19.99. (In fact, it was during this time, roughly a year after Basket Case had been released on video via Media Entertainment that director Frank Henenlotter talked his producer Edgar Ievins into participating in a then-current promotion of different horror titles going out for $19.95. His reasoning was that kids who couldn’t afford a copy of Basket Case for $49.95 could surely afford a copy at $19.95. He guaranteed Ievins that their commission check would be three times bigger than it was with the movie at the higher price. Reluctant, Ievins took the chance with his partner. When the first commission check for the movie at the reduced price arrived, Ievins excitedly informed Hennenlotter the check was actually nine times more than what they had been earning.)

 

Once I began receiving their catalogs I had a vast checklist of film titles available on video, for any kind of movie I was searching for and the company that released it. This became an invaluable resource, especially once cheaper “sell-through” labels began offering lower quality cassettes for titles that were also still available from higher quality labels. (You could not expect the same quality from a $14.98 copy of C.H.U.D. on the Star Maker label, recorded in EP speed, that you could the $69.99 copy of the same title from Media Entertainment, recorded in SP.)

 

 

 Image courtesy of Robert Freese.

 

The Marshall Video Discount Service catalog also helped you keep up with titles that went out of print, or titles that went out of print on one label but were immediately released on a different label. In the case of something going out of print, once you knew the tape was no longer available, if you found it available to rent somewhere, or better yet, a shop was selling their copy, you didn’t hesitate to snag and either put it in your collection or copy it for your library for fear of never getting the opportunity of running across it again. (Many times, I would place an order just to have my money refunded with a little note letting me know a couple of the selected titles were no longer available. Those were then the titles I would go out looking for to rent so I could copy them.)

 

 

 Image courtesy of Robert Freese.

 

Marshall Discount Video Service sold tapes from every label imaginable. They were an early source for the classic Sinister Cinema Drive-in Double Feature tapes Greg Luce put out, usually available only during their seasonal release time. Just flipping through a couple of the updates I’ve managed to save over the years, I see tapes available on labels I had long forgotten about.

 

 

 Image courtesy of Robert Freese.

 

For anyone who loved movies on home video, Marshall Discount Video Service was essential, whether you bought video cassettes (or laser discs) or not. They were a full-service distributor, covering mainstream tastes as well as all the collectors’ markets in between.

 

 

 Image courtesy of Robert Freese.

 

 Long gone, but far from forgotten, Marshall Discount Video Service was integral in helping steer the market toward collectors and helping get titles of films into the hands of people who would have never obtained them any other way. They were part of a very different time in the evolution of home video, but they were among the trail blazers who set movie fans on their paths to amassing their own amazing home video libraries.

 

 

If you enjoy the “Golden Age of Italian Cinema” check out the 23rd Anniversary Halloween Edition of Rue Morgue, out September 1st. Robert Freese talks to legendary screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti about some of the classic films made from his writings. Also, watch for future issues of The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope Magazine for Robert’s interviews with Something Weird Video honcho Lisa Petrucci, Italian screenwriter Elisa (Zombie) Briganti, slasher directors Bud (The Mutilator) Cooper and Richard (Splatter University) Haines, cinema psychos Timothy (Final Exam) Raynor and David Howard (Terrifier) Thornton, and Italian writer/director Luigi (Star Crash) Cozzi. In the meantime, you can read about the movie that almost was by Dardano Sacchetti, Mario Bava and Roger Corman, Anomaly by clicking here. More of his writings can be found in recent issues of the Italian language film magazine Nocturno, Drive-in Asylum and Grindhouse Purgatory.


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