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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"It started out as a way for me to say to the studios, please just keep prints available," she says.

The signatories include individuals from more than 60 countries: cinema owners, actors, directors, students, professors, patrons, cinematographers, editors, producers. Some told stories. One young theater manager in rural Minnesota lacks the funds to upgrade and wrote that he worries his small theater will have to shut down, leaving people in a 20-mile radius with nowhere to go to watch movies.

Some protested the entire notion of digital. "Digital is vaporware, imaginary, all zeros and ones," wrote one person from Indiana.

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

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"Turning our backs on 35mm film prints is like never wanting to read a physical copy of a book again," a guy from Saskatchewan declared.

Others decried the Hollywood suits. "Shame on you, big studios!" said a man in Australia.

"Are you greedy so-and-so's out of your minds?" a man in Pennsylvania chimed in. "You made the Harry Potter films! You have more money than God!"

"Disgraceful," chided someone else.

Many worried about what would be lost. "Hug a projectionist today," urged a fellow in Switzerland.

Hug a Projectionist

When Vinny Jefchak first trained to be a projectionist, back in his native Midwest, it was a good job. The old-timers who taught Jefchak earned $45,000 a year in post–World War II Chicago, equivalent to $300,000 in today's economy.

It was also a much more dangerous job. Nitrate film is highly flammable, and booth fires were not uncommon. Chemically identical to the explosive guncotton, nitrate film has its own built-in oxygen supply. Once it starts burning, it never wants to stop. It even burns underwater. The original nitrate projectors had a carbon arc lamp house with a hot bulb focused on a highly flammable piece of film running through it. If the reel got stuck in the projector, you were in trouble. That intensely focused circle of heat could cause the film to combust.

Jefchak once worked in a booth outfitted with metal doors and porthole windows covered with drop-down guillotine shutters. The projectionist would pull a pin to shut the windows if the film caught fire, run out, pull another pin to shut the door and let the film burn itself out.

Booths were often tiny, asbestos-lined spaces. Jefchak knew a guy who threaded films for a huge, glamorous, 4,000-seat theater in a space no larger than an airplane lavatory. Every night, the guy scrunched inside a booth dangling from the attic above the auditorium like a fighter plane's ball turret.

Even recently, some booths lacked air conditioning — allowing temperatures to climb to more than 100 degrees inside. Jefchak would arrive for his shift weighing 185 pounds and leave weighing 180. "It was hellish," he says, grinning. "Purgatorial."

Jefchak, 51, is tall and lanky with a growly voice. He has been a projectionist for 33 years. His dad, a college film professor, taught him how to load his first projector at 19, after which he was trained by old-timers who worked in the combustible days of nitrate film.

Nitrate film is a good example of technology changing for the better. With the invention of acetate safety film in 1948, nitrate was discontinued. The advent of digital, on the other hand, may well be the final blow to the dying art of the projectionist.

Playing a movie on a DCP projector involves plugging the hard drive into the projector, creating a playlist, as you would on an iPod, and pressing a button to play. "You could train a monkey to do it," Jefchak says. "Now they need to corner the market on monkeys."

Jefchak works at the New Beverly, which is owned by Quentin Tarantino. A regular at the art-house cinema, Tarantino bought the place in 2007, when it was in danger of closing. The New Beverly still plays traditional reel-to-reel 35mm, and Tarantino has said that the day the cinema puts in a digital projector is the day he burns it to the ground.

Recalling the quote, Jefchak laughs. "I don't know how to break it to him, but we've been running digital here for as long as we've had video projectors. But I think what he's trying to say is if we go exclusively digital because there's no 35mm print, then he will feel there's no reason to own this place anymore."

Tarantino's dislike of the new medium is shared by projectionists.

"A lot of projectionists in the multiplexes basically are going to be disenfranchised and laid off. So they're freakin' out," Jefchak says. He remains stoic: "They've been telling me I'm not gonna have a job for the past 30 years or so."

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