SXSW may be all about the latest in social apps and innovative hardware, but it’s also nostalgia central here in Austin. There are pop-up vintage shops opening up in town, we spotted a working 3D-printed LP player at the Create tent… but none compares to the feature length film by an Austin and New York-based trio at IPF Productions. As part of the film festival portion, the team premiered their ode to VHS tapes with Rewind This! A VHS Love Story.
The documentary explores the life and times of VHS film format – from its inception to downfall at the hands of digital media – and the community of people who still collect video tapes. Initially funded by an Austin art show for the making of the movie, the team looked to Kickstarter for additional support to travel around the country and to Japan for more research. “We really wanted a global story,” director John Johnson says. “Within 24 hours we were funded 50 percent [of our goal] and we received 100 percent funding after 100 hours.”
Johnson says the appeal of VHS format, at least to him, is that these movies often have an archival effect. Since many films never made the jump to digital form, the ones that are only available in VHS have a certain allure seldom found in DVD and Blu-ray. “Knowing that VHS is the only way to access these movies … there’s just something very charming about that,” says producer Carolee Mitchell.
The appeal also comes in a form of ownership, Johnson adds, noting that in the digital age, people have no rights to physical media anymore. With Web-streaming services, on-demand videos, and downloads, film studios can take those offline at any given moment and deny immediate access. Conversely, no film studio executive is going to come in your house and take the tapes away. “VHS is definitely novelty,” Johnson says. “[In the future], I believe contemporary films will start using it as a cinematic aesthetic.” It’s similar to how photographers are reverting back to film format cameras, or at least look to Instagram – for those who can’t figure out how to load a 35 mm roll on a traditional shooter.
Like film cameras, floppy disks, and other old school technology, the cost of production only gets higher with age. Rewind This! premiered at SXSW but will be distributed to Kickstarter funders in DVD form with the hopes that once the team can gauge how many tapes to produce, they can offer VHS editions to collectors and fans. “The way it’s priced out shifts depending on how many tapes we have to manufacturer and how we want to package it,” Johnson says. “DVDs are smaller in size and package. You’re essentially asking people to take a 10-year step backward to produce VHS tapes … so the markup cost is significantly more expensive.”
But it’s a film the team may want to have in VHS – if only to explain to future generations what this piece of technological past once stood for. And when they do, those kids will be so much more appreciative of never knowing what it’s like to manually rewind VHS reels.
Rewind This! will continue to screen at SXSW on Wednesday, March 13 at 9 p.m. at the Violet Crown Cinema and Saturday, March 16 at 1:30 p.m. at Topfer Theater at ZACH.
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