How Star Trek: Wrath of Khan Saved Home Media From the VHS vs. Betamax War


Along with being arguably the best Star Trek movie ever, 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is an exceptional example of sci-fi filmmaking. It blends action, adventure, love, and horror in ways that few (otherwise great) sci-fi movies have ever come close to replicating, and decades’ worth of repeat viewings and shared praise have certainly helped capture the scope of the film’s accomplishments. 

Yet, there is one part of Wrath of Khan’s considerable legacy that remains as forgotten as the marooned settlers of Ceti Alpha V. It is the movie that not only contributed to the end of the format wars but effectively paved the way for the home media market that forever changed the way we watch (and re-watch) our favorite movies and TV shows.

The Absurdly High Costs of the VHS vs. Betamax Wars

The VHS vs. Betamax format war doesn’t even feel like a cultural skirmish these days. By the mid-1980s, VHS had established its market dominance so completely that the word “Betamax” soon became shorthand in certain circles for jokes about failed products. The popular perception was that Betamax was simply the inferior product. But the truth is much more complicated and interesting than that. 

Early on, Betamax was considered to be the vastly superior format in most traditional ways. Betamax tapes offered better video quality, clearer sound, and were not only smaller than early VHS tapes but were generally considered to be more durable. If someone sat you down and showed you the Betamax and VHS versions of the same movie playing side-by-side, you would almost certainly choose to continue watching the Betamax tape. While VHS tapes and players enjoyed several improvements over the years that gradually closed the technical gap, Betamax usually offered a better overall viewing experience.

We’re ultimately talking about a retail battle, though, and the VHS format offered several benefits that consumers felt were worth the sacrifices in quality. Namely, VHS tapes/players boasted significantly longer total recording times, which proved to be a big selling point early on when many early adopters who purchased VCRs to record programs off of their TVs.

VHS manufacturer JVC was also much more willing to license its technology out to other companies early on, whereas Sony was comparatively more protective of its Betamax technology. Even when given the choice between those formats, companies soon discovered that VHS players were often much cheaper to manufacture. That also meant that VHS players and tapes were cheaper for consumers.

However, it’s also important to consider that both formats were ludicrously expensive for the average person. The first Betamax players typically retailed for around $1500 to $2000 (or more) for a few years after they debuted in 1975. Adjusted for inflation, that would be around $8,500 to $11,000 today. Comparatively, you could buy a VHS player for around $1,000 to $1,500 when it launched in 1977. Those prices would fluctuate over the years, but even by 1983, a VHS player would typically still run you about $500 (around $1500 today). 

Worse was the cost of individual movies. While blank tapes could be purchased fairly cheaply (relative to the absurd costs noted above, that is) purchasing a tape of a major new movie on tape would typically cost you about $80-$100 up until around the early-to-mid ‘80s.

Again, the exact prices tended to fluctuate, but the point remained the same. Given the investment required, Betamax and VHS manufacturers typically saw the home media market as a concept that only appealed to wealthy enthusiasts. Even then, the thought was that those who purchased players would rely on recordings for entertainment, and those who did purchase movies would rent them from video stores and other outlets that were part of studios’ wholesale business strategy.

The thought of owning a personal library of movies was an almost unfathomable luxury at that time. To change that, a major studio would have to boldly go where no studio had gone before. 

Planting the Space Seed

By the early 1980s, some much-needed price drops on Betamax and VHS players allowed more people to finally get in on the home media market. It became clear that more and more people at that time were buying VHS players over Betamax players due to their lower prices, greater array of retail options, and the natural momentum of social adoption. It just made more sense to choose VHS over Betamax. The more people you knew who had the same media format as you, the easier it was to trade tapes and other resources. 

Even still, studios largely refused to budge on the price of individual movie releases. It must have seemed foolish to lower the prices of those releases when most of those studios were still targeting wholesale buyers. Why lower the price for those buyers when you didn’t have to, and if an individual did want to spend around $100 for the privilege of owning a blockbuster movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars…well, so much the better. 

But then, in 1982, Paramount decided to try something pretty bold. To help promote the theatrical release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, they released The Original Series episode that set up the movie (“Space Seed”) as a standalone VHS tape. The front of that tape even promoted the release as “The Episode That Inspired Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” 

Yet, even Paramount wasn’t bold enough to charge full price for a VHS copy of a single episode from a 16-year-old TV show. Instead, they released “Space Seed” at a special reduced price of $29.99; significantly cheaper than just about every other VHS on the market. There is little documentation about the logic behind the decision, but the idea seems simple in retrospect. Paramount likely guessed that hardcore Star Trek fans would jump at the chance to own even a piece of the series they loved so much. Though they must have been hopeful that the release’s low price point would appeal to even more people than that, it’s hard to imagine there were realistic expectations that “Space Seed” would become a major retail hit.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened. That $30 copy of a single Star Trek episode reportedly outsold full-length modern movies that debuted at full retail prices. Did that mean that a surprising amount of people were willing to pay for VHS copies of TV episodes? Perhaps, but the real message was that the market for home media releases was larger than anyone had previously anticipated. 

The Math of Khan

To test that theory, Paramount decided to release the VHS version of The Wrath of Khan for $39.95 (about $40 less than the average cost of a VHS new release at that time). The Betamax version of the movie reportedly launched for a similar price, though that proved to be a somewhat irrelevant factoid for reasons we’ll soon discuss.

In any case, take a moment to appreciate the risk Paramount was taking. It wasn’t just that most people didn’t buy many tapes; it was the fact that most people didn’t even think to buy tapes in the early ’80s. For Paramount’s move to pay off, they would need to get a record number of people to both open their wallets and change their hearts and minds. Anything short of a historic success would have left the studio with the painful realization that they were better off focusing on the rental market as their competition was still doing.

Thankfully, the gamble paid off. Wrath of Khan reportedly sold around 120,000 copies, which doubled the most optimistic internal expectations for its retail performance. It was not just an overwhelming retail success, but a moment that Paramount believed represented a seismic shift in the foundation of the entire entertainment industry. In fact, in an ad that promoted Wrath of Khan as an all-time best-seller, Paramount bragged about the risk they took in their decision to make “buyers out of renters.”

Of course, Star Trek wasn’t the only property pushing increased VHS sales at that time. By the early 1980s, more people were also buying pornography tapes, and an increasing number of porn studios were putting their titles on VHS due to its lower cost and growing adoption rates. They didn’t exactly take out the kind of full-page industry ads that Paramount did to celebrate their successes, but they certainly played their part. 

Even still, widespread changes in the industry weren’t exactly immediate. Some subsequent major releases still debuted at “full” price, and video rentals remained a popular and more viable option for many. Gradually, though, studios felt the winds of change blowing and began experimenting with lowering tape prices to appeal to a market that the movie industry had once undervalued.

By the time Paramount lowered the price of the Top Gun VHS to a meager $26.95 as part of that release’s massive promotional campaign (and record-breaking sales), it was clear that the home video market was no longer going to be dominated by whales and rental retailers. Soon, almost everyone would be able to build a home library around that Star Trek II VHS they likely owned. 

Never Underestimate Star Trek Fans

While Star Trek II wasn’t quite a killing blow in the VHS vs. Betamax format war, its release represented a point of no return that would ultimately seal Betamax’s cultural standing in the minds of many. The success of Wrath of Kahn showed just how important price was when it came to home media adoption.

Sony tried their best to change some of their policies to turn Betamax into a more retail-friendly format, but in the post-Wrath of Khan world, it just wasn’t enough. The dream of owning your favorite movies was no longer a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous luxury but a reality made possible by VHS. While Betamax would remain a viable option in professional settings that valued its technical qualities, Sony essentially conceded the format wars in 1988 when they released their first VHS machines. 

Theoretically, any other major release around that time could have had the impact that Wrath of Khan did had they been released at a similarly generous price point. Yet, it always felt appropriate that it was Star Trek that proved to be the cornerstone of many ever-growing home media libraries.

At a time when studios asked, “Are people really willing to pay that much money for this?” Star Trek fans answered with a resounding “Yes.” It didn’t hurt that Wrath of Khan was so entertaining and rewatchable. If you were only going to own one movie, it was a great one to own.

The post How Star Trek: Wrath of Khan Saved Home Media From the VHS vs. Betamax War appeared first on Den of Geek.

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