Some folks start the conversation on “why film?” speaking about the unique warmth, depth, and texture of the projected image. I certainly agree with that sentiment. Watching “The Master” in 70mm was a near transcendent cinema experience for me. I also would vastly prefer to watch a classic exploitation movie with all the grit, scratches, and intermittent audio pops you experience with a well-worn roadshow 35mm print. To me, that is part of the journey, part of the history unfolding on screen. But that is not the argument I am making for folks to support Reel Film Day this Sunday.
I personally believe that the projection of film and public support for venues who continue to invest in film projection is integral to preserving our rich film history.
Ninety percent of films released in the silent era are gone… forever. Sure, the big classics were preserved, but vast swaths of films deemed at the time to have no historic significance hit the dumpsters and are now forever lost to the world. If you peruse old copies of the now-defunct cinema industry journal Motion Picture World from the 1910s and 1920s, your heart aches as you see page after page of ads for films you will never, ever have the chance to see.
Perhaps even more tragic, because it happened in my own lifetime, 30% of the films from the grand exploitation/drive-in era of the 1970s are similarly lost forever. The harsh reality is that America has a stunningly poor record when it comes to film preservation.
When the digital cinema revolution hit in the early 2000s and studios phased out 35mm prints altogether, another great purge of film history began again. The vast majority of cinemas threw away their film projectors in favor of new digital projectors. They switched from 35mm film to DCP digital files and never looked back. Without theaters to be able to play their wares, niche 35mm libraries and distributors shuttered their doors and many of these archives of film were lost and are not coming back.
Cinemas with only digital projectors have access to less than 5% of classic films on the DCP format. Without the ability to project film, theaters are confined to screen only new release movies and just the tiniest sliver of classic film.
Enter Arthouse Convergence, the network of independent and arthouse theaters in America. These are the theaters that, when the digital conversion hit the industry, did not simply cart their film projectors to the dump. They installed the new digital machines side by side along with their film projectors.
Only by having the ability to project film can a cinema truly serve serious film fans. Arthouse theaters are not just a destination for a night on the town, not merely a place to unwind after a hard week. Arthouse theaters are cultural hubs, community gathering places, centers for education and discovery and cornerstones for charitable fundraising and social action. They are also critical players in preserving our film history. Many of these theaters lead preservation efforts to seek out, save, and share rare film prints, maintain vintage 35mm equipment and stockpile the finite supply of spare parts. They also invest in training for technicians to be able to properly handle and not damage film so that audiences for years to come will still be able to enjoy these rare 35mm prints.
If you consider yourself a cinephile, if you love classic films and care about the preservation and legacy of our grand movie history, I encourage you to reflect on March 5th about the importance of independent theaters and get out of the house to watch a movie projected from film in one of these sacred spaces.
You can find a list of all participating Reel Film Day theaters here. Find out more about Arthouse Convergence and the network of independent arthouse theaters at Arthouseconvergence.org.