No, I’m not one of these people who believes Michael Jackson became Mother Teresa when he died, but there was one part of the Thriller success story I found interesting.
Veteran entertainment journalist Nancy Griffin recently wrote the text for Douglas Kirkland’s photo gift book Michael Jackson Deluxe: The Making of Thriller: Four Days / 1983.
As John Landis pointed out to Griffin, Thriller was the first sell through video. Before if you wanted to buy a movie on VHS or Beta, it would cost $89.99 or more. Post-Thriller, prices for movies were much cheaper, allowing movie fans to stack our personal collections up to the ceiling.
Thriller was certainly a groundbreaking video, running 18 minutes long, and with great make-up effects from Rick Baker. It played theatrically as a short-subject before a re-release of Fantasia, and ran at the beginning of every hour on MTV for many weeks.
As Landis recalled to his biographer Viulia D’Agnolo Vallan, when Vestron wanted to put it out on video the director thought, Who would buy it? It’s been on TV every ten minutes.
Once Thriller became a big purchase to own hit, it opened up a whole new market the major studios never thought of.
And Landis’ producing partner George Folsey Jr. told Griffin, “You have to remember, back in those days none of us realized quite what home video was going to become.
The studios treated it pretty much the way they treated television in the 50s and 60s, with total disdain. They had no idea that the home video business was going to save Hollywood – it never crossed their minds.”
Yet as my friend Richard Lee Christian, who worked on a number of DVD reissues and has been along time film buff, reminds me, Paramount also did sell through before Thriller. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Raiders of the Lost Ark were going for $39.95, and E.T. was also released in the $22-24.95 range, but Thriller was probably the first to sell within that range, and thankfully everyone else followed.