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Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling 

Thursday, Apr 12 2012
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Shortly before Christmas, director Edgar Wright received an email inviting him to a private screening of the first six minutes of Christopher Nolan's new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. Walking into Universal CityWalk's IMAX theater, Wright recognized many of the most prominent filmmakers in America — Michael Bay, Bryan Singer, Jon Favreau, Eli Roth, Duncan Jones, Stephen Daldry. If a bomb had gone off in the building, he thought, it would have taken out half of the Directors Guild of America.

"It was a surreal experience because it felt like we were all going to get whacked," Wright recalls.

As the directors settled into their seats, Nolan addressed them with words ripped from the plot of an old Batman serial.

click to flip through (7) PHOTO BY JENNIE WARREN - Ross Lipman, restorationist, UCLA Film & Television Archive
  • PHOTO BY JENNIE WARREN
  • Ross Lipman, restorationist, UCLA Film & Television Archive
 

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"I have an ulterior motive for bringing you here," the British director announced.

And then he made a plea for 35mm film.

Nolan pointed out that The Dark Knight Rises was made on celluloid. That he is committed to shooting on film, and wants to continue doing so. But, he warned, 35mm will be stamped out by the studios unless people — people like them — insist otherwise.

There is a war raging in Hollywood: a war between formats. In one corner, standing with Nolan, are defenders of 35mm film. Elegant in its economy, for more than 100 years film has been the dominant medium with which movies are shot, edited and viewed.

In the other corner are backers of digital technology — a cheaper, faster, democratizing medium, a boon to both creator and distributor.

A few months later, Nolan steps out of the editing bay to discuss his purpose on that December evening. He says he wanted to remind his fellow filmmakers what photochemical film can do. It is too easy to forget the beauty and power of 35mm.

"The danger comes from filmmakers not asserting their right to choose that format," Nolan says. "If they stop exercising that choice, it will go away. I tell people, 'Look, digital isn't going away.' "

It certainly isn't. James Cameron's Avatar got the ball rolling back in 2009. The 3-D blockbuster could only be shown via digital projectors, and so the first wave of theaters upgraded in a hurry.

Today, the driving force isn't so much a single movie as it is the studios' bottom line — they no longer want to pay to physically print and ship movies. It costs about $1,500 to print one copy of a movie on 35 mm film and ship it to theaters in its heavy metal canister. Multiply that by 4,000 copies — one for each movie on each screen in each multiplex around the country — and the numbers start to get ugly. By comparison, putting out a digital copy costs a mere $150.

"Distributing movies digitally into theaters has been the holy grail of the studios," former Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock told Variety back in 2010. "They stand to eliminate billions of dollars in costs in coming years without spending very much."

In 2012, it seems, the grail is finally within the studios' grasp. Fate hasn't yet been sealed on the image-capture end, as directors like Nolan dig their heels in about aesthetics and continue to insist on shooting on film. But even a motion picture shot entirely on film can be converted to digital after the fact. And on the projection side, digital is winning.

This year, for the first time in history, celluloid ceases to be the world's prevailing movie-projector technology. By the end of 2012, according to IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service, the majority of theaters will be showing movies digitally. By 2013, film will slip to niche status, shown in only a third of theaters. By 2015, used in a paltry 17 percent of global cinemas, venerable old 35 mm film will be mostly gone.

The repercussions will be vast — and felt down the entire length of the movie-industry food chain.

Upgrade or Die

Hadrian Belove wanted to show Breakfast at Tiffany's for Valentine's Day. As executive director of the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre in West Hollywood, he's used to working with studios to borrow prints of rare or classic films.

But this year it proved trickier. Studios are pushing a new format. And Belove's cinema — a nonprofit collective of cinephiles dedicated to presenting "weird and wonderful" movies — hasn't made the upgrade.

The new format is called a DCP, or Digital Cinema Package. It is a virtual format, a collection of files stored on a hard drive. Roughly the size of a paperback novel, the hard drive is mailed in a lightweight, foam-lined plastic case to the theater, where it's inserted (or, in the lingo, "ingested") into a server that runs the digital projector. DCPs won't run on traditional film projectors, however. So if they want to play the new format, theater owners must update their equipment.

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