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Film’s Not Dead Yet: Four Reasons Why

The demise of 35mm film has been so widely reported by now that it's easy to believe film has been completely supplanted by digital cameras and projectors. But that's not quite true. News broke last week that 35mm negative stock had a new lease on life, as a coalition of Hollywood studios made a financial commitment to keep it alive for a few more years, and there are even places where you can still see a movie projected in 35mm, if you know where to look. We don't want to overstate the case — film really is on the ropes in a digital era. But here are some reasons filmmakers and film fans alike still have a shot at making the most of the last days of film.
 
Hollywood's finest won't let it go. 
Famous filmmakers have convinced Hollywood studios to keeping Kodak's film factory running. The Wall Street Journal last week revealed "secret negotiations" between Kodak on one side and Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, Disney, and The Weinstein Company on the other to keep Kodak in the film-manufacturing business. Basically, the studios are committing to purchase set quantities of film stock over the next several years on behalf of directors who may use it. Among the filmmakers lobbying for the deal were Quentin Tarantino, Judd Apatow, J.J. Abrams, and Christopher Nolan, all of whom have continued to work in 35mm. In fact, Tarantino is promising to shoot his next film, The Hateful Eight, in 70mm, and that's Nolan at the top of this page, on location with an IMAX camera for his November release, Interstellar. And Martin Scorsese yesterday released a statement in support of the Kodak deal. "Young people who are driven to make films should have access to the tools and materials that were the building blocks of that art form," he said. "Would anyone dream of telling young artists to throw away their paints and canvases because iPads are so much easier to carry? Of course not."
 
It's not just for Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese.
Sure, J.J. Abrams can throw a little weight around and get the greenlight to shoot Star Wars 7 on film. But 35mm remains viable even for indie projects. With the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign and support from Panavision's New Filmmaker Program, which loans 16mm and 35mm camera equipment to low-budget projects, Washington, D.C. filmmaker Zeresenay Berhane Mehari was able to direct Difret on location in Ethopia, shooting 35mm film and sending it to India for processing. The film premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic category, and it is making the rounds of festivals with Angelina Jolie's name attached as executive producer. Not bad for a tiny film.
 

 
Film prints aren't extinct — just an endangered species.
It might seem like every cineplex in the land has transitioned to digital projection, but there are some hold-outs. At the end of 2013, according to research firm IHS, there were still 2,969 35mm-only screens in the U.S. In the New York metro area, Cinemart Cinemas in Forest Hills, Queens, is reportedly one of the last film-based theaters, leading some filmsick movie buffs to make the pilgrimage specifically to see a movie in 35mm. You'll also be able to see film projected in all its glory in November, when IMAX books 15-perf 70mm film prints of Nolan's Interstellar in "somewhere around 50" theaters, film site Collider reported in June. If you love film projection, enjoy it while you can — passion projects won't keep IMAX-format projectors running indefinitely, and distributors have been itching to discontinue 35mm entirely.
 
 
Film archives have a (much) longer life than digital archives.
Movies need to be archived somehow, and filmmakers who rely on digital masters as their "archive" may be courting disaster. As the Academy wrote in its Digital Dilemma 2 report issued in 2012, "Suitable long-term preservation and access mechanisms for digital motion picture materials have not yet been developed." Converting that color digital master to black-and-white separation film is a good way to get it into an archival format, and with that in mind, Kodak recently developed two new archival film stocks. As Kodak film exec Andrew Evenski reminded us late last year, "film offers a standardized, human-readable format that has been in existence for well over a century, and methods for retrieving content from a 35mm frame will exist well into the future." Even the recent digital-transition documentary Side by Side was eventually committed to film stock for the archives.

12 Comments

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  • Peter

    Amen…

  • David

    OK, so the dinosaurs of Hollywood want to keep their precious, over-priced film stock? Not impressed. You will note that those over-priced directors make more money if they mark-up all the film steps involved in Film making. It’s just a medium, not a religion. Anyone notice that you can’t tell the difference anymore between shot on film and shot digitally. OK, so JJ Abrams can. Last time I checked, movies are made for the masses…

    And Panavision, who lives on selling cameras, donates cameras to low-budget projects? So who pays for the film? No ulterior motives there.

    Oh, and by the way, you can lay digital films onto film stock to keep your archive, and you don’t have to shoot on a film camera.

    I have an idea… let’s keep gasoline cars. Everyone just loves the smell… Oh, yah, electric is cheaper, better for the environment and generates more responsive power and speed. But hey, Henry Ford’s daughter loves gas so let’s keep our heads buried in the sand for another 15 years…

    • Ken Steiger

      Sure JJ Abrams can. He can tell it’s film because of all the noise and grain it introduces. Kind of like the analog audio argument. They love tape because it saturates all the high end and adds an artificial low frequency “bump”. There are actually articles from 1925 decrying the HORRIBLE screechy sound of this new fangled “electrical recording” process. After all, NOTHING could be as pure as an acoustic sound wave funneled into a big horn then etched directly into wax!

    • BillK

      Let me know when you can take an electric car on a road trip on a warm day, full A/C on or cold day, full heat on, stopping only to refuel every 400 miles in three minutes or less. Or just decide that you are running out on a journey that turns into an all day drive without care for distance. Not even Teslas and Supercharger stations can pull off that feat yet.

      Just because you can’t tell the difference between film and video doesn’t mean that experts like these directors can’t, or that normal viewers who know what to look for can’t.

      Ultimately, filmmaking, though it results more often than not in simply a product, is also an art.

      Would you deride artists who choose to use oil paints or charcoals to create a work that can so obviously be done with Photoshop and a Wacom tablet? Then why deride artists who choose photographic film as their medium?

      As an aside. digital has finally neared parity with the resolution of 35mm film with 4K gear, but it’s nowhere near the resolution that can be captured with 70mm or IMAX equipment.

      • Sambo

        The problem comes when you call Transformers 4 – art.

        • BillK

          It very much is, as much as any OSCAR winner, in it’s own way and on it’s own terms.

          We get it, you and many others didn’t like it, but it did break $1B worldwide, and that’s what the studios are going for.

  • Vadim Bobkovsky

    Film’s Not Dead Yet. Grandpa is on life support, but it’s days are numbered. I had a good chuckle reading the reasons for archiving on film. Good one.

  • Schecky Schmengberg

    .
    Eastman Kodak at one time was one of the top 10 polluters in the US. I will not miss that dinosaur company when they’re gone.
    .

  • http://www.magnamana.com Axel Mertes

    Shooting on film? Well, thats really “old-school” and does not justify the recent developments in digital cameras, actually surpassing about every aspect of any film stock out there. Well, except the unstable noisy image. Guess its that what they are after. Wasn’t there a bunch of plugins doing a good job on letting digital perfection look as grainy and unstable as film?

    For archiving, the story is so true. If I see all this digital nerds running to scan about every bit of piece to “archive” it on harddisks and LTO media. A harddrive has a typical lifespan of about 3 to 5 years. Even worse, when its only used once in a while it tends to harden the oil in the motor spindles, making it unable to spindle up again at some point. You *may* get data back in a dedicated desaster recovery lab, but is that worth the strategy?

    Even LTO media has a big issue: They tell us it’ll last 30 to 50 years. BUT about every two years appears a new generation of LTO media and drives. The drives are always backward compatible to read the previous two generations and write the current and one previous generation media. So in turn, after 6 years you will unlikely find ANY new drive being capable to read back your media. After say 10 years you will hardly find ANY drives on the used-market. That puts that “30 to 50″ years story in a pretty bad context – beside the big question who can give you a warranty for 30-50 years, despite how was this proofed?

    Any electronic/digital archive needs to be ALIVE. That means you have to migrate data every 2-5 years from one media to the next to not loose too much. There is an inherent loss by degrading media, bit copy errors etc. But those issues can be worked around using redundant storage, time consuming checksum systems with re-reading data after writing, double house holding in different places etc. etc. However, such an archive is very expensive over time. You need power, new media, administrative personnel. Big data company representatives from companies like Data Direct Networks, Dell/EMC Isilon, IBM etc. estimate the running costs for 1 TByte of storage to be between 1000 to 3000 US$ per year (asked them personally last IBC 2013).

    Quite the opposite with film. We know that film material can be way older than a hundret years, especially if kept in a safe storage environment. We know that the newer base materials like acetate and polyester have a signficiantly higher stability than the old and dangerous nitro film ever had. That those films are still around, being older like the older person alive.

    Film storage can be fairly cheap compared to digital in the long run, in the really loooong run. The big issue is the initial cost for e.g. film recording to seperation film etc. Cheap recording solutions can be as low as 20,000 US$ for an entire feature film (with a respectable revenue for the company doing it). Plus the cost of the storage place (~120 US$ a year?). So after around 20 years in worsed case the film recording pays off, in best case after around 7 years, but it allways will. Even when we count in that electronical storage will become cheaper over time, it will never become cheaper than simply storing a few cans of film in a warehouse or bunker (except you believe in those handy tiny glass cubes you always see in SciFi movies). Check your local suppliers and put up the numbers yourself.

    Wasn’t it a rule in the US to must have a copy archived on seperation film for every fundet film with a budget higher than 5,000,000 US$? Thats of course not the indy projects, but every damn blockbuster and half way good movie. Maybe that is only a rumor (I am from germany), but it would make quite a lot of sense.

    And, ah, yes, don’t even think about archiving on Sony HD CAM SR…!!! What a waste…

  • Philly Film Maker

    The Industry has changed drastically, Film is dead… and new technology is happening so fast a new Video Camera comes to market before you can pay for the one you just bought, 4K 8K next is 16K smaller cheaper better? Makes it easier for anyone who wants to make Movies but it does not mean they are making Movies better. The new digital age has watered down this industry sort of what Apple did to the print industry, now with cell phones that can take 24 MP pictures who needs a Photographer, So the Photographer can shoot 4K movies at 24 FPS with an inexpensive SLR. Now Film makers (VideoMakers) and Photographers are the same. Dedicated production houses are sinking like the titanic. I guess this is what they call Progress…Like Walmart. Get it.

  • Manu

    Instead of releasing a statement in support of the Kodak deal, Martin Scorsese schould stop shooting digital and shoot film again…

  • James Durand

    Movie studios, take heed of the music industry’s cd and digital downloads decline, and that same industry’s growth of vinyl LP’s.

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