Tom Hanks: Streaming Wars ‘Akin’ to VHS in the ’80s

Tom Hanks streaming movies include Greyhound and Finch. Apple TV+ picked up Greyhound at the beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic when theaters closed. That doesn’t bother Hanks because he remembers the last time an emerging home video technology threatened Hollywood. If they survived VHS in the ’80s, they can survive streaming.

Tom Hanks streaming premiere of 'Finch': Hanks poses with robot
Tom Hanks | Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Hanks was a guest on the Smartless podcast on Nov. 1 before Finch premiered on Apple TV+. He explained why the streaming wars are like the battle over VHS in the ‘80s.

Tom Hanks’ streaming movies still have to be good 

Streaming has given audiences more choices than ever to watch movies and TV shows. Now, viewers have to decide which streaming services to subscribe to if they can’t afford them all. The onus remains the same for a filmmaker to make it good. Hanks doesn’t claim all his movies got it right.

“Look, movies are always binary,” Hanks said on Smartless. “They’re either double 0 or 01. They either work or they do not work and if they don’t work, there’s no amount of marketing or interviews you can do, on podcasts, in order to change the zeitgeist. The pressure remains absolute. The pressure is the speed of light in order to make a great story.”

For Hanks, streaming is irrelevant to the audience. They will go wherever the good material is. 

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“The audience, I think, if I can pontificate just a little bit here, doesn’t care where they see it,” Hanks continued. “The business does. The marketing, the producers and the studios, the grand entertainment industrial complex, they would like things to be exactly as they were, but we have a business that is forever changing.”

Tom Hanks: Streaming is ’80s VHS all over again 

The streaming wars are old news to Hanks. All the fretting about declining box office and people choosing streaming movies is very familiar to him. Hanks was on TV in the ’80s when VHS went on the market. 

“You know, back in 1980, the concept of home video was just beginning,” Hanks said. “The first year that Peter [Scolari] and I were in Bosom Buddies, a VHS tape machine, player at home cost about $4,000. The only people that had them were incredibly wealthy, rich. In a neighborhood, maybe a guy named Doug would open up Doug’s Video Rental Shoppe and on one side of the rental space would be VHS tapes and on the other side would be a smaller collection of Beta, Sony Betamax. Eventually, Beta went away, and it was all just VHS. I think the next year, VHS machines were only $1800, and everybody was renting.”

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Hollywood was concerned in the ‘80s about video dealers licensing their movies, fearing it would compromise theatrical showings. It turned out, home video became a profitable ancillary market after movies played in theaters. Streaming makes things a bit more complicated, but there’s room for both.

“It was great, of course, to be able to record shows after you went through this arcane process of on, off, recording time,” Hanks said. “The bigger thing was that if you had kids and you had a VHS of Dumbo, they would get up in the morning on their own and put in Dumbo, and you didn’t have to get up. This was huge. Here we are in 2021, and the industry is going through something akin to that change because guess what? As Gary Goetzman, my partner at Playtone said, ‘Sitting at home and watching something on your TV is not that bad.’” 

The good old days of premium cable

Through Playtone, Goetzman and Hanks produced theatrical movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the HBO series Band of Brothers and The Pacific. There’s more competition now, but Hanks recalls when HBO was the gold standard.

“We were very lucky at Playtone because one of our first deals was at HBO. This was old-school HBO, no commercials. You can say anything you wanted to. There was no language. At that point, doing a series or a movie or miniseries on HBO, that was the gold standard. It seemed as though you had all the freedom in the world. Now you have even more of that all the freedom in the world but it still comes down to this very basic requirement, you’ve got to be putting out an awfully good product. Otherwise, it will disappear into the mist.”

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