Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling
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.
"I have an ulterior motive for bringing you here," the British director announced.
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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.
For this privilege, exhibitors can expect to shell out from $70,000 to $150,000 per screen. Because the studios will save so much money on shipping costs, they've agreed to help finance the conversion. For the next 10 years, they will pay theater owners a "virtual-print fee" for each new release shown digitally.
To speed the conversions along, the studios are using a classic carrot-and-stick model of coercion. The offset money is the carrot. The punishing stick? Studios will no longer be releasing 35 mm prints.
It's not so bad for first-run theater chains, which play only new releases. Art-house and repertory theaters, however, which play classic and older movies, are largely dependent on print loans from studios. Increasingly, the prints are remaining locked in studio vaults. Last November, 20th Century Fox sent its exhibitors a letter to that effect: "The date is fast approaching when 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight will adopt the digital format as the only format in which it will theatrically distribute its films. ... We strongly advise those exhibitors that have not yet done so to take immediate steps to convert their theaters to digital projection systems."
John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, drove the point home at the association's annual convention last year in Las Vegas. "Simply put," he said, "If you don't make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business."
Belove, of Cinefamily, believes many theaters will choose just that.
"Hundreds of art houses will go out of business," he says. "Already some theaters are shoving under."
Belove recently returned from a conference of art-house theater owners. Most of the attendees were operating on annual budgets of less than $500,000. Upgrading on that budget is prohibitively expensive.
"The pressure's on me," he says. "I know I'm going to be forced to do a major outlay."
But the alternative also is lousy. Already there are films he couldn't show for lack of a DCP-compliant projector. He couldn't get a print of A New Leaf from Paramount for an Elaine May retrospective he wanted to do. Ditto for Saul Bass' Phase IV for a Bass retrospective, and Andrzej Zulawski's The Important Thing Is to Love for a Zulawski retrospective. Studio Canal in France would supply only a DCP.
"This is classic cinematheque stuff," Belove says with frustration.
And then there was Valentine's Day. Instead of a 35mm print, the studio offered Belove either a DCP or a DVD of Breakfast at Tiffany's.
While Cinefamily couldn't show the DCP version without a costly upgrade, it could choose to show a DVD or Blu-ray. Blown up on the big screen, however, a relatively low-resolution DVD looks, in Belove's opinion, terrible.
"We can look at a DVD right now," he says, walking into the darkened auditorium. On the screen, a trailer is playing. A man and a woman are having sex. "See how the blacks aren't black?" Belove whispers. "That's DVD. Look at the textures. Look at his jacket. Look at his face. You can't see a lot of detail."
After the trailer, the feature begins. "OK," he says, "now it's film. See how much blacker the black is?"
Stepping outside, Belove lights a cigarette and runs a hand through his hair. "Why would I charge people for a format they could see at home?"
For Valentine's Day, he passed on a DVD of the Audrey Hepburn vehicle and played a 35mm print of F.W. Murnau's melodrama Sunrise instead.
While the push to digital and corresponding clampdown on prints make sense to studio bean counters, it is madness for independent theaters. At best, it forces repertory programming to become dull. DCPs are only available for film's "greatest hits," not for the obscure gems people expect from independent theaters.
At worst, it takes away the flexibility that small organizations need if they are to survive. The studios' "virtual-print fee" contracts come with restrictions on which films a theater can show, and when. The exact terms vary. But since exhibitors are required to sign nondisclosure agreements, they can't compare deals.
And the clock is ticking: There is a time limit on the studios' offer to help pay for new equipment. Belove has until fall 2012 to decide whether to upgrade. After that, the virtual-print fee offer expires and he'll have to pay full price. He shrugs. "They've got much bigger fish to fry," he says of the studios. "There's no reason for them to care if 500 little theaters ... "
His voice trails off. "I mean, I don't see a solution to it. It's going to take a major movement."
One employee at the New Beverly Cinema on Beverly Boulevard hopes to inspire just such a movement. Julia Marchese started her online petition "Fight for 35mm" last November. Within hours, a thousand people had signed. By February, she'd collected more than 10,000 signatures.
"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.
"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."
Before the New Beverly, Jefchak worked the megaplexes where automation was the trend. He remembers manning a dozen screens at one multiplex, sprinting down a booth as long as a football field, pressing start-start-start-start down a row of projectors. Soon, thanks to digital, even that won't exist. Cinemas are handing projection over to the I.T. department. Pacific Theaters at the Grove, for instance, now starts its movies via iPad.
Projectionists are not the only ones whose jobs are in danger. It used to take a small army of shippers to deliver films from studio to theater. But digital downloads render physical transport obsolete. It happened to the small mom-and-pop courier that once delivered films to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That courier went out of business in October.
Economically, the biggest shift is in the release-print market. The six major studios spend $850 million a year to have release prints made, and an additional $450 million to deliver them. With studios no longer needing 3,000 prints of each new film to distribute to theaters on opening day, many photochemical labs have been closing. In Los Angeles, two labs, Technicolor and Deluxe, process the bulk of these 35mm release prints. Pillars of the film services industry and historic rivals for almost a century, they signed an unprecedented truce last year — a deal with the devil — agreeing to carve up the remaining business and both stay afloat.
A few months later, in January, one of the companies that makes the raw, unprocessed film stock, Eastman Kodak, filed for bankruptcy.
In an interconnected ecosystem, a change in one species causes a ripple effect throughout. "It's all intertwined," says Chris Kenneally, director of the Keanu Reeves–produced documentary Side by Side, which examines the industry's switch from film to digital. "The same companies that make the film that goes to theaters are also the same people that make the film that goes into the camera on the set to shoot it."
Digital projection, Kenneally continues, will push photochemical film out of existence, because the labs that make the film stock won't outlive the huge loss of income.
The mood in the post-production sector is pervasively grim. "Everybody's nervous," says Ross Lipman, a film restorationist who regularly encounters a wide cross-section of industry types, from curators to technicians. "Everybody's kind of looking around to see if somebody's found a way to survive this transition. Because it's like you're walking around a field of battle, and people are just dropping right and left around you."
As one projectionist at a large multiplex put it, "It's spooky."
While money is driving the conversion, money could well be its undoing. The ultimate pricetag of digital equipment is hidden to exhibitors right now. Little expenses add up. Take xenon bulbs for projectors, which retail for $600 a pop. To save costs, penny-pinching theater owners used to run bulbs beyond the recommended time. In a 35mm projector, a blown-out bulb is no big deal. But a digital projector, in Vinny Jefchak's words, is "real delicate shit."
If you use the bulbs too long in a film projector, "Maybe you have a broken reflector," explains Shawn Jones, an engineer at the lab NT Audio. "You clean out the broken glass. But if a bulb explodes in a digital projector, it tends to break a lot of expensive pieces."
Within the warranty period, the manufacturer fixes the machine for free. But if a bulb explodes outside that time, the exhibitor is on the hook. As a result, bulbs must be changed three times more frequently in digital projectors.
While studios are initially kicking in money to help theaters buy new equipment, as that digital equipment ages, exhibitors will bear the cost. And digital is notoriously temperamental. Jones' lab, for example, has already gone through two DCP-compliant projectors in three years — in both cases, through no fault of the lab's. (By contrast, the Simplex XL 35mm projectors at New Beverly are going strong at 60 years old. Like all analog projectors, they use an intermittent sprocket, a cog and a pivot — the same basic gear as a sewing machine.)
With so many rival entertainments, movie attendance is at the lowest it's been in nearly 20 years, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. In the past year and a half, U.S. box office receipts plummeted half a billion dollars. Coupled with the larger consumer trend, the expense of digital could be a disaster.
"In five to 10 years," notes one lab technician, "this is all going to unravel in a big, bad way."
In 28 Days Later a man in a hospital gown walks down the middle of a deserted London street. He passes empty buildings, overturned double-decker buses. A breeze shuffles bits of trash around in the morning sunlight. He is alone. The zombie apocalypse has struck.
That scene, the movie's most memorable, might not have existed if not for digital cameras. Director Danny Boyle couldn't afford to shut down London traffic for more than an hour. But because digital cameras set up more quickly than film, the crew was ready to shoot — with six strategically placed cameras — within minutes.
Many directors prefer digital cameras because of their speed and portability. Boyle's director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle, went on to win a Best Cinematography Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, the first digital motion picture to do so. He refused to take cumbersome 35mm film cameras into the Mumbai slums, opting for smaller, lightweight digital equipment to capture the place's bustling urgency and flow.
The constraints of film, however, force artists to master their craft. An old-school cinematographer like Freddie Young, for instance, could shoot on a film camera with no digital monitor to check his progress — and walk out at the end with Lawrence of Arabia.
No wonder, then, that directors like Christopher Nolan worry that if 35mm film dies, so will the gold standard of how movies are made. Film cameras require reloading every 10 minutes. They teach discipline. Digital cameras can shoot far longer, much to the dismay of actors like Robert Downey Jr. — who, rumor has it, protests by leaving bottles of urine on set.
"Because when you hear the camera whirring, you know that money is going through it," Wright says. "There's a respectfulness that comes when you're burning up film."
Cinephiles talk about there being an organic quality to 35mm, as if it were a living creature. "There's literally an inner life," Wright says. "Every single frame is different on every single print. You feel that when you're watching it. I'd be alarmed to see that go away."
In a sense, film is mortal. Every time you play a print film, you destroy it a little bit. Sprocket holes tear. Edges wear. Frames get scratched.
Cameron's Titanic played for so long in theaters that it fell apart in the projectors. Watching it by month two was a very different experience from seeing it at the premiere. All the directors Chris Kenneally and Keanu Reeves interviewed in their documentary — with the exception of Nolan — said digital projection is beautiful and superior to film. It looks the same on play one as it does on play 100. Digital, in this sense, is the immortal medium.
But in the digital age, those who know technology worry that films themselves will be lost.
"What worries me is there's a vast number of films that exist," says Bernardo Rondeau, assistant curator of film programs at LACMA. "Will all those millions of films make the transition to DCP? Certainly they won't. A lot of the films haven't even made the transition to DVD."
With every move to a new screening format, a percentage of films doesn't make the jump. And once they're gone, they're gone. It is a gradual winnowing down of the past. Our entire knowledge of the silent film era, for example, is barely a glimpse of what was actually produced.
If the past is prologue, film preservation hasn't exactly been a priority with studios. Today, studios store their prints in caves deep within the earth — high-security vaults hundreds of feet underground. Abandoned salt or iron ore mines, the facilities are known colloquially as "the salt mines." Supposedly they are able to withstand the blast of a nuclear bomb.
But not too long ago, studios simply threw films away. Paramount planned to burn its old nitrate. MGM was set to dump its original negatives — including those for Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz — into the ocean. What did they need those for, they figured? They'd made copies.
Luckily for the studios, archivists at UCLA and Eastman House took the prints instead. Because, years later, MGM wanted to digitize its old movies and needed the originals back. The copies they'd made, on Kodak stock, had faded.
And even after the films are converted to digital, Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, calls the challenges of preserving them "monumental." Digital is lousy for long-term storage.
The main problem is format obsolescence. File formats can go obsolete in a matter of months. On this subject, Horak's every sentence requires an exclamation mark. "In the last 10 years of digitality, we've gone through 20 formats!" he says. "Every 18 months we're getting a new format!"
So every two years, data must be transferred, or "migrated," to a new device. If that doesn't happen, the data may never being accessible again. Technology can advance too far ahead.
Migration, alas, is a laborious process. Professional labs have automated the process of migrating data from one storage tape to another with robots that shuttle tapes into drives. But a big collection requires a big robot. Then you need someone to maintain the robot.
"Digital snowballs on you," says engineer Shawn Jones. "It starts simple. Then as you grow and use more of it, your costs quickly escalate."
And it's not like studios are making less data. There's always more coming in.
Even worse, it's extremely easy to lose data. "If I spend," Horak says, "as we did on one restoration, $750,000 to preserve one film digitally, and then it goes into a computer somewhere and it disappears, that money's gone."
Think it doesn't happen?
Five years after the first Toy Story came out, producers wanted to release it on DVD. When they went back to the original animation files, they realized that 20 percent of the data had been corrupted and was now unusable. Granted, digital was new at the time. Surely advances have made digital storage much less problematic?
Fast-forward to Toy Story 2, which was almost erased from history. Pixar stored the Toy Story 2 files on a Linux machine. One afternoon, someone accidentally hit the delete key sequence on the drive. The movie started disappearing. First Woody's hat went. Then his boots. Then his body. Then entire scenes.
Imagine the horror: 20 people's work for two years, erased in 20 seconds. Animators were able to reconstitute the missing elements purely by chance: Pixar's visual arts director had just had a baby, and she'd brought a copy of the movie — the only remaining copy — with her to work on at home.
In the digital realm, the archivist's mantra, "Store and ignore," fails. If you don't "refresh," or occasionally turn on a hard drive, it stops working. You can't just stick it on a shelf and forget about it. As restorationist Ross Lipman says, "You're shifting from a model focused on a physical object to data. And where the data lives will be constantly changing."
Because of all these factors, the notion that digital is cheaper is a myth. And that, too, is a worry. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences recently released a study, "The Digital Dilemma." It discovered that it's actually 11 times more expensive to preserve a 4K digital master than film.
Moreover, most filmmakers surveyed for the study were not aware of how truly perishable digital content is. Digital technology makes it easy to create movies, the academy concluded, but the resulting data is much harder to preserve.
Meanwhile, all film needs is a cold, dry place to spend eternity. Under these conditions, archivists say, a black-and-white print on polyester-based film stock can last 1,000 years.
Into the Vault
The temperature inside the main film vault at the UC Southern Regional Library Facility on UCLA's Westwood campus is a nippy 57 degrees. Humidity hovers at 50 percent. This is where the UCLA Film & Television Archive keeps a large portion of its vast collection. Inside the preservation vault — a kind of vault within a vault, for rare negatives — it is even colder. A thermostat on the wall reads 46.8 degrees. With metal walls and concrete floors, the room is basically a big refrigerator.
As the vault's librarian explains, nitrate is "a different animal."
It's kept in a state-of-the-art facility in Santa Clarita in self-contained chambers with a fire-suppression system. Within a year, archive chief Horak hopes to also have a small digital-asset management program in place there. But he has no plans to digitize the archive's 350,000 titles. His strategy for dealing with the digital dilemma thus far has been "baby steps."
The main vault stores newer movies as well as old. UCLA's archive is the second largest in the country (only the Library of Congress is bigger). And it's growing. If a director belongs to the Directors Guild of America, for example, a print of his or her film automatically comes here for safekeeping. Plus, analog donations are up. Where once he'd get 20 or 30 films, Horak is now getting offers of 5,000 titles from distributors keen on purging their own vaults in favor of digital.
Here, films in their flat metal cans are piled neatly atop rows of metal shelves that recede into a vanishing point far into the distance. The cataloging system, based on container size rather than the alphabet, makes for strange juxtapositions. You can find Close Encounters of the Third Kind sitting near Robin Hood: Men in Tights, La Dolce Vita rubbing shoulders with Monkey Shines. It seems somehow both tragic and funny that Macbeth will spend the next thousand years sharing shelf space with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Motion-controlled lights in the vault flick on and off. Mostly, they're off. The archive is closed to the public, and even staff don't visit much. But that could soon change. With studios ceasing to loan prints, nonprofit archives like UCLA's likely will be seeing increases in requests.
It is also possible, however, that the public may never experience some movies here in their original print format again. "They won't let us show the nitrate," Horak says of a studio he declines to name. "These are films in our vault, and we're still not allowed to show them. It was never an issue before. Never an issue." He sighs. "My gut tells me that this is part of a policy of killing the 35 mm market altogether. Even for classic repertory cinema."
For the moment, many other prints are free to come and go. Near the entrance, a half-dozen 35mm reels of Blade Runner have just returned and are acclimating back to chilly vault temperature on a wooden dolly.
As for Breakfast at Tiffany's, the movie Cinefamily's Hadrian Belove tried in vain to show on Valentine's Day, it's gone. The spot where it normally sits — right under Dances With Wolves — is empty. The librarian apologizes. Someone else has checked it out.
[Update: Corrected title of Saul Bass' Phase IV, 11:30 a.m. April 12.]
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