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September 07, 2018

Home Video Visionary Andre Blay Passes

BONITA SPRINGS, Fla.—Back in the late '60s, well before many who are reading this were born, Andre Blay was beginning his first year of an executive MBA program at Michigan State University, and in 1970, he wrote his Master's thesis for that course. Its topic? The future of home video—and future it was, because at that time, there was no such thing as "home video" unless one had access to a lot of expensive audio/video equipment. Even so, Blay, who in 1966 had co-founded Stereodyne Inc., an eight-track and audio cassette duplication company, founded Magnetic Video Corp. (MVC) in 1969, and quickly negotiated contracts with the National Education Association to help the association better communicate with its members: the hundreds of thousands of public school teachers. MVC puttered along for several years as a small service provider until 1977 arrived, and with it, an announcement from Sony Corporation that it intended to market the Betamax Home Video Recorder in the U.S. Although there were videocassette systems already on the market, such as the Quasar Great Time Machine, which used large, bulky "VX" cassettes, the VHS system was unheard of at the time, and no major corporation was backing the sale of home video recording equipment. Blay immediately saw the promise the Betamax brought with it. He immediately wrote what he described as "cold call letters" to the seven major Hollywood movie producers, asking to release their movies on home video; only 20th Century Fox responded, asking him to visit. Blay met with Steve Roberts, Fox's VP of Telecommunications, and Roberts presented Blay with a list of 100 feature films to which Fox held the home video rights. Blay and Fox negotiated a contract a few weeks later to allow Blay to release 50 of those films on videotape to consumers. Blay soon formed the Video Club of America, taking out a double-page ad in the Thanksgiving weekend edition of TV Guide, offering consumers membership in the club for $10, which would allow them to purchase any movie on videocassette—Beta first, but soon VHS as well—for $49.95 each. In those days, TV Guide had an effective readership of about 24 million people, and Blay's pitch—"Welcome to the world of video. Here's your chance to own your own movies"—resonated with enough of them that the club quickly became a multi-million dollar enterprise. "We had 50 titles and we released all 50 titles at once," Blay explained in an interview. "The reason I wanted to release all 50 titles is, I wanted the consumer to know there's variety." Admittedly, Blay had to pay a "start-up" fee of $300,000 to Fox as well as $500,000 yearly to maintain the rights to the movies, but according to TV Week, "The operation was so successful that 20th Century Fox bought Magnetic Video in 1979 for $7.2 million to form the 20th Century Fox Video unit, with Blay serving as its first CEO." As Blay later explained, "Up till then, the viewing audience had a choice of going to the movies on their schedule or watching a TV show on a schedule, not being able to record it or anything else, just based on a schedule, so the whole population was bound to scheduling. ... When we came along, it was like opening Pandora's box." Indeed, it was. Videocassette recorders (VCRs) became the hot tech buy of the mid-to-late 1970s, and that fact was not lost on the owners of such companies as Select-A-Tape, Caballero Control Corporation, CalVista, Gourmet Video, Command Video, Video-X-Pix, VCA, AVC, Essex and more, many of whom for years had supplied hardcore films to adult movie theaters, sold under-the-counter "stag reels" through adult boutiques, and supplied hardcore footage to "peepshow" booths such as those invented by Lasse Braun and marketed by Reuben Sturman. In fact, the adult video industry was going full-bore by the time a young video store manager with a journalism background released his first issue of Adult Video News in February of 1983—and the adult entertainment industry hasn't been the same since. And it all got its start with Andre Blay, who died on August 24 at age 81 at his home in Florida.

 
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