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