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Studios Put 35mm Prints on the Endangered-Species List

Photo by Roman Bonnefoy When news broke that Eastman Kodak had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, it seemed like just another signpost on the road marking the long, slow decline of 35mm film acquisition and exhibition. But I didn’t think it was any cause to ring the alarms. Despite some reports to the contrary (here’s one that erroneously says studios aren’t shooting movies on film anymore), film has some life left in it. Right? Well, I missed the kerfuffle that arose last November, when Twentieth Century Fox sent out a “Dear Exhibitor” letter urging exhibitors to convert their screens to digital. It reads, in part:
The date is fast approaching when Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Searchlight will adopt the digital format as the only format in which it will theatrically distribute its films. We currently expect that this date will be within the next year or two …. In short, the time is now for digital conversion.
Some exhibitors found the tone of the letter vaguely threatening — “You got a nice theater here. Shame if something were to, you know, happen to it.” But, divorced from the emotions that surround rapid (and expensive) change, it’s good advice, and you could say it’s thoughtful of Fox to issue a warning before ramping down celluloid production, not to mention terminating the virtual-print fee (VPF) system through which studios have shouldered some of the costs of digital conversion. Film vs. digital projection is increasingly on the mind of filmmakers who have always had to pay special attention to making sure that analog film prints match the digital look they finesse in the DI suite. Some of them would just as soon never deal with a release print again. Steven Soderbergh recently gave an interview to The Onion‘s AV Club where he touched directly on this issue. It’s a great Q&A, well worth the read, but here’s the pertinent quote:
AVC: Do you think there are any real obvious strengths that film still has over digital? SS: No. Not to me. AVC: Do you have any thoughts on the way that digital photography and projection has changed the landscape? Because it’s happening so quickly, much to the chagrin of the people who have a lot of affection for celluloid. Where do you stand on that? SS: I love it. We finish the film, and we make the DCP, and we screen it, and then they go, “Okay, now we’re going to run the print,” and it’s terrible. It’s such a disappointment. I look at it and go, “Ugh, it’s soft. It doesn’t have any snap. It’s moving all over the place. The color shifts on the reel changes.” I’m thrilled with where we’re heading.
Where we’re heading is digital acquisition and digital exhibition, at higher resolution and faster frame rates. When The Hobbit hits movie screens at 48fps, moviegoers really will be seeing something new. And, as far as film history goes, all of those existing 35mm prints that get loaned out for festival and repertory screenings certainly aren’t going anywhere. Right? Well, about a week ago a cinephile who works at the IFC Center in New York City sent up this warning flare on my Twitter feed. As the conversation spread, other programmers chimed in to verify the original Tweet. One mentioned that the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, showed a digital version of WB’s The Shining as part of its continuing “See It Big!” film series. (I wonder what Stanley Kubrick would say about that.) Another claimed a request for a print of director Fritz Lang’s 1936 Fury brought a response suggesting it be screened from DVD instead. Repertory houses screening movies from DVD and Blu-ray instead of film prints? Apparently it’s becoming a more and more common occurrence. Tom Cruise shooting Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol The writing’s been on the wall for film-based exhibition for some time, but it’s a little shocking to think that 35mm prints of landmark titles may be dropping out of circulation permanently — even as ambitious directors like Chris Nolan and Brad Bird bring their A games to the action genre by shooting scenes on actual large-gauge IMAX film stock. Some will argue that digital projection is a step in the right direction for theaters and studio libraries, with its theoretical ability to present a pristine image every time. But as good as a digital image may be, it will never look exactly like its film equivalent. Old-timers and aficionados have been describing the special look of nitrate film prints to the rest of us for decades; now it might be time for today’s moviegoers to get ready to educate the youngsters on what a 35mm print used to look like, if film screenings are about to become the province of scholars, archivists, and historians. For my part, I’m glad I got out, years ago, to see titles like Vertigo, Lawrence of Arabia, Singin’ in the Rain, and Citizen Kane in 70mm and 35m presentations. I would have savored those screenings even more if I had known it might be my last chance to see them. Top photo by Roman Bonnefoy; behind-the-scenes image from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Prootcol courtesy Paramount Pictures

24 Comments

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  • Joel Epps

    What about the value of film as a long term high resolution archive that is not susceptible to digital compression and unreliable hard drives and that can last for over a hundred years? What about the fact that film is still a higher resolution image and a true analog image compared to digital? I don’t deny the value of digital files for screening but doesn’t anybody think that film is actually a better archive medium?

  • http://www.steveoakley.net Steve Oakley

    no surprise. having seen a few titles in both film and digital projection, soderbergh is right. the film version was flat looking in comparison. if you don’t see a print the first few times it runs thru the projector, it fades, gets scratched, ect. and just doesn’t look the way its supposed to.

    then if you look at the costs of projection prints from the outright cost to the environmental ones ( film involves chemicals, print transport, print destruction ) its really a pretty sad way of getting images into your local theater.

    digital makes a lot more sense for distribution on every level. FWIW, you can always do a little post processing of highlight / shadow glows ( diffusion ) that simulates film and the audience will never be the wiser.

  • http://www.filmandvideo.com Bryant Frazer

    Joel, I figure the studios will keep archival prints around indefinitely. There’s value there, and as you point out there’s still no substitute for analog copies in the vault for the long term. What they want to stop doing is shipping around those heavy film prints (and paying to strike new ones to service what must be a dwindling repertory market).

    Steve, you’re right about the look of newer titles, at least. Soderbergh’s movies can look almost muddy on 35mm, but there’s lots of detail, especially in terms of color subtleties, in the D-Cinema versions. So for new releases there’s a good argument there, even though it’s painful for smaller theater operators. But there’s about 100 years of film history getting shafted, too, if film prints of older movies get sidelined at the same time new prints get discontinued.

  • ldtowers

    “What about the value of film as a long term high resolution archive that is not susceptible to digital compression and unreliable hard drives and that can last for over a hundred years?”
    Infinite digital copies last forever, compression can be lossless.

    “What about the fact that film is still a higher resolution image and a true analog image compared to digital? ”
    Debateable at best and only for dynamic resolution, not for spatial resolution.

    “I don’t deny the value of digital files for screening but doesn’t anybody think that film is actually a better archive medium?”
    Infinite digital copies. Every one as good as the last. You can be sure that major studios have a regular cycle in place. Film better be durable, every subsequent copy is worse.

  • Tim Savag

    I can’t help but wonder where some future (or or maybe just older) documentarian like Ken Burns is going to find — let alone be able to not only play back but use — 50- 60- or 70-year old video images for his programs?

  • Antonio Ribeiro

    I use to be a puritan, shooting movies on 16mm film as opposed to digital. I am still fond of those days but in today’s marketplace they amount to nostalgia and nothing more.

    The creative freedom you have today to create/emulate just about any look you want on your movie, without spending a cent on processing costs is a defining factor.

    Not only that, any Indie can now shoot at an affordable price and with the same tools high end movies use (Girl with Dragon Tattoo, Facebook, etc). I just bought such a camera and can now shoot and cut a film with 4K resolution, which would be unconcievable a few years back unless you were sitting on a pile of cash.

    As for archiving, the digital format can have amazinglongevity so long you don’t drop your drives in the water. But again you wouldn’t do that to a 35mm print either.

    Digital offers great quality at low cost and this is the deciding factor that will win the argument. Goodbye celluloid!

    Antonio Ribeiro

  • http://frugalfilmmakers.com/ Alan Halfhill

    I have no problem with digital projection. Most of the time it is better. In focus, in frame, no scratches and bright colors. Since most films are being are having a DI intermediate anyway it does make sense.

    The costs of shipping and striping film prints is huge. But, for small exhibiters to switch to digital is very costly. The studios should help. Some are not going to make it.

  • MKSM

    Disgusting. These studios are shitting in the faces of the film makers that made the movies their studios were built on. Some new releases look better in digital but in terms of the classics: THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR FILM AS THAT’S THE CANVAS IT WAS MADE ON. I am a photographer who also works in film and the comment above about using digital to tweak highlights here and there to simulate the look of film is so disrespectful, and completely technically ignorant, to the makers of some of the greatest films ever. Technicolor print or DCP. Print wind hands down. We may as well remove all the master works of art from the Moma, Whitney, etc because we can put it on an LCD screen and saturate those hues a little more. Digital has been great for repertory film houses that can run DCP, but what about all the usable 35mm prints of movies that are obscure and not deemed a profit by the studios. I saw a new 35mm print of The French Connection at Film Forum and it trumps and digital transfer. Make no mistake – much of cinema is going to disappear forever due to idiotic short sightedness. This is not an issue to do with new releases, this is saving the history of film, andy the total and disgusting lack of respect shown to the craft. It’s nothing short of cultural vandalism.

  • http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/fight-for-35mm/ Jack Murphy

    Fight for 35mm film. Because of the switch from film to digital projection, it seems that many distributors will be not renting 35mm prints anymore, depriving 35mm repertory cinemas of films. The New Beverly Cinema petition has over 9,000 signatures so far.

    Sign the petition if you are in agreement to keep 35mm available, and keep repertory cinemas alive.

    http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/fight-for-35mm/

  • http://vassartheatre.com Tim OBrien

    As exhibition goes, film done right is, and always will be, superior to digital done wrong. Anyone who thinks that lines, scratches, dirt and jump-splices are part and parcel of film have been mislead – mostly by the digital proponents.

    At the end of the day, none of this is about preserving the integrity of the art or ensuring the quality of presentation. It’s about money – and how much more of it will remain in the distributor’s pockets.

  • precode

    Warners is an outlier. Even before digital projection became a reality, they would give exhibitors fits with their refusal to ship prints (which they would simply claim they “no longer have in stock”). Most of the other studios have a more realistic concept of retail sales.

  • Zack Carlson

    Look…we can argue our aethetic preferences all day and fill the internet with our film vs. digital dispute. But there are very real tragedies here beyond that.

    First off, the fact that studios are going to stop loaning their repertory prints is going to be flat-out catastrophic to moviegoers because only a fraction of their titles are ever going to be made available on screenable digital formats. For instance, Warner Bros has literally thousands of titles from the ’20s up in their archive. They’ll make the recognizable ones available (like The Shining), but there’s no doubt that the vast majority won’t be transferred to theatrical DCP format since that would cost them several thousand bucks a pop. A couple years ago, these lesser known films would be available for discovery, but no longer. Much like the 40%+ of movies that never made it from VHS to DVD. The only difference is that we can all still hold on to our VCRs, but very few of us have a 35mm projector in our living room.

    The other major heartbreaker is that this shift to digital theatrical projection is going to murder independent movie houses. To purchase the standard DCP rig costs between $40,000 and $100,000, and that type of cash isn’t flowing into the arthouses these days (and it never was). Any independent theater that can’t cough up for the new technology was at least able to skate by on classic films for the past couple years. But if studios stop booking their 35mm back catalog, they’re deliberately murdering our greatest moviegoing tradition. And that is a genuine shame.

    Thanks for reading this, and please consider keeping movies — ALL movies — alive.

  • http://www.chelsearialtostudios.com Ray Faiola

    The question as it relates to cinematography and exhibition is moot. Digital is here to stay. It’s a digital generation. Landlines, letters and postcards are completely outside the sphere of consciousness of generation 2012.

    The important question is that of preservation. Every few years a new advance in technology arises and films have to be re-transferred to meet the elevated standard. Transferred from what? Hopefully from a piece of celluloid that you can shine a light through and yield an image. But as each successive generation of custodians finds themselves faced with shrinking budgets and real estate, what percentage of backlog will, in fact, be preserved on film? Will the custodians at Universal in 2033 find it penny wise or pound foolish to preserve photochemical records of all those Leon Errol six-reelers?

    Film collectors and film archaeologists are holding tight to their sprockets. But they’re getting old. And the romance is waning outside their legions. Audiences are, for the most part, indifferent and the thrill of seeing beautiful prints can be attained just by turning on TCM.

    The original movie makers were inspired by history. Very often they were part of it. The second generation took the novelty and vaulted it to an art form. The post-war film makers brought insight and internal struggle to the screen. And, just as the whole business looked as though it were on the precipice of collapse, along came der wunderkinds. Fellows who grew up on movies and went to school to learn how they could do it too. And that’s pretty much where we are. Character, conscience, morality and love – in its deepest sense – are incidentals. There really isn’t that much to get very excited about. The citizenry has neither the patience nor the inclination to submerge themselves into the “why’s” of humanity. They just want to know if the best friend is really holding an ice pick behind her back. To hell with the clues, just make sure there’s an explosion with plenty of digital stuttervision. And irony. Lots of irony.

    If you ever want to give yourself a shock. Get a hold of a print of an old RKO picture called WAY BACK HOME. Aside from a bit of a romance concerning a very young Bette Davis, the folks in Seth Parker’s world just sit around the fireplace singing hymns and old songs. People really did this. They really did.

    As a great prologue once stated:

    “Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…”

  • Jim Jordan

    I would like to compare blog comments from when we moved from a zoopraxiscope to projected film, from silent to sound, from black and white to color, from 3:4 to widescreen, from VHS/LD to DVD.

  • V

    To all who think digital theatrical exhibition is the “bees knees,” I ask, “why the heck would anyone go to the movie theater to watch a video image?” They can do that at home. Especially with today’s even mid-range monitors/tv’s, they are going to get just the same image quality as in the theater — possibly better, albeit smaller. I don’t know too many people with 35mm exhibition capabilities in their own home. I do know a lot of people with blu-ray players and flatscreens. It is something to ponder given the state of things if the theatrical experience of movie-going is ultimately at risk for the intermediate to long term.

    As far as Soderbergh’s comments above regarding release prints, the man is evidently blind — more evidenced if you’ve ever seen any of his movies. In my experience there is nothing flatter and more fake than a digital projection. There is nothing suprising in this since in either digital or analogue video, the image never actually exists. Film is an object. When it is projected, the shadows it casts have weight. The film itself has mass. (Obviously anyone who has ever had to carry a 35mm feature of a flight of stairs knows this.) Not only does this attribute of film give it the unique characterstic of corporeal existence (which any archivist knows is the key to even a hope of posterity in this world) but it also demands by its admittedly cumbersome nature a public venue to be experience. The digital image has no mass. A drive, deck, some microprocessors, codecs, and a bunch of semiconductors are required to interpret even the base construction of the image. The Film image is a chemical construction, not much different in this concept than, say, the pyramids — to pick the most ridiculous but still appropriate example for this analogy. Digital files can easily be trashed, corrupted, and otherwise molested. A film print, though scratched, can still be at the very least seen, if not projected through solely mechanical means and witnessed. A digital file is far less resilient. But, there is one good point about this scenario. Though we may be stuck with a lot of film from the 20th century (some great, a lot arguably not so great) we will have only digital files of Soderbergh’s movies. These will be fantastically easy to lose, never to be seen again.

  • walker

    Studios are doing this to control releases more efficiently and squeeze a few extra dollars from the system. So as usual economics leads the changes in distribution, not art, craft or even skill. Studio Daily has a long-standing beef with film, BTW. But take a peek at the list of movies shot in the past 18 months on film. Of course, Soderbergh’s films are not here. But he’s really a B-list director. All the A-listers are here and all the A-list DPs: http://motion.kodak.com/motion/Customers/Productions/index.htm

  • walker

    Also check here for those films shot on FUjI. Again all the A-list international directors and DOPs (internationally DPs are called DOPs for you event videographers out there).

    http://www.fujifilm.com/products/motion_picture/filmed_on/

    So all you event video guys on this list can coo about “the death of film” because you never shoot it anyway. A-list professionals know that film is still the best medium for origination and archival purposes. Theaters will go digital … but they may also just go away (as V said in his earlier post). Then the distributors can sell direct to “home theater”, with no middle man, and total control of the product.

  • Joelle

    Digital is not the same as Video, the latter being a tape-based medium with measurable (think literal definition: mathematical) limitations and has always been a lower quality image to Film.

    When properly compared (i.e., a frame of film to a 2k/4k digital image, and not to, say, a compressed MPEG), Film does not have a better image than Digital, it is a different image (Is a car better transportation than a horse? Well, that all depends on what you want, need to achieve). Each medium needs to be exposed to its capabilities to reach its potential, not either treated ‘as if’ it is another.

    Film is susceptible to elements, to damage, as is Digital, however, film also fades, deteriorates, just by sitting on a shelf. Digital Imagery must be forced to deteriorate through compression, mishandling of color, but can be restored. We’ve lost thousands of films through vinegar syndrome, fires, heat, so, the idea that Digital destroys history is false. Especially when you take into account many films have been scanned to digital in order to be saved from permanent loss, due to said deterioration, and digitally restored to its original luster of color.

    HDR (High Dynamic Range) images and one file to one frame of image will vastly improve image quality, superior to any Film capability (unless color range, detail, highlights and blacks are excluded from the definition of quality).

    Digital projectors are expensive now. Computers once cost millions to build and now you can buy a phone for a few hundred dollars that does more. Hardware lowers in price with time. The speed in which technology advances, prices drop exponentially faster than ever before.

  • Richard Travis

    In a related story…

    I believe Christie stopped making 35mm projectors a couple years ago.

    Earlier this month (Jan. 2012) Ballantyne Strong, the last remaining 35mm film projector manufacturer in the U.S., announced they were closing up shop in that capacity and would henceforth concentrate on their digital projector installation and service business.

    Another sign of the times…

  • John Gilbert

    I recently ran a Bollywood print at an Indian theater. Talk about beautiful! The picture was razor sharp and the color was breathtaking. India is making film prints the way we used to do it. Digital will NEVER have the quality of film. Comparing pixels to halides is like comparing gravel to baby powder. There has been a conspiracy over the last few years to purposely make film prints look so bad that when we saw digital we’d be wowed. It has worked for some but those who know the true nature of film are not fooled. Digital edit masters start to drop frames after 90 days, film lasts 100 years. But give American cheap or quality and they’re going to go after cheap every time!

  • Jim

    Does anyone care if Transformers doesn’t last 100+ years?

  • Pingback: The impending extinction of film. | Jeremy Scott Olsen

  • RMX

    This is madness! So what becomes of all the 16 mm and 35 mm films?

    #1 what happens to companies and jobs that build these projectors?

    #2 What happens when to collectors invested into these prints if there projectors break down?

    #4 I just lost my business,as I collect and I rent out 16 and 35 mm to film houses.

    #5 IF MY PROJECTOR BREAKS THEN WHAT? I CAN’T VIEW MY MOVIES!!??

    From my understanding, China will buy up theses film prints and recycle them in to
    polyester clothing ! ALL THESE CLASSICS GONE WITH THE WIND!

    :(