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by Bryce J. Renninger
November 16, 2011 12:31 PM
30 Comments
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35mm Projection is at Risk. Does That Matter?

The obituaries have already been written for the book, the movie camera, and, yes, film. Business research firm IHS just released a study projecting that, as of next year, there will be more digital-projection screens than 35mm projection screens in the US.

We've known it was coming for some time now, but it still hurts the purists among us. 

Julia Marchese, writing for the New Beverly Cinemas in Los Angeles, has started a petition online to request that the studios not go through with their plans to stop sending archival 35mm prints out to repertory cinemas.

She says in the petition:

I firmly believe that when you go out to the cinema, the film should be shown in 35mm...We still use a reel to reel projection system, and our projectionists care dearly about film, checking each print carefully before it screens and monitoring the film as it runs to ensure the best projection possible. With digital screenings, the projectionists will become obsolete and the film will be run by ushers pushing a button - they don't ever have to even enter the theater. 

The human touch will be entirely taken away...Revival houses perform an undeniable service to movie watchers - a chance to watch films with an audience that would otherwise only be available for home viewing. Film is meant to be a communal experience, and nothing can surpass watching a film with a receptive audience, in a cinema, projected from a film print.

Marchese goes on to say, the theater has "never been about making money," but the costs of sending out prints and managing the archives seem not to be making sense for the studios, especially when the number of theaters doing repertory screenings is diminishing.

Marchese's petition isn't the only recent plea for film; those in London can visit the Tate Modern to see film artist Tacita Dean's 11 minute ode to film as a part of the festival's annual Unilever installation, where one artist gets to take over the museum's Turbine Hall.  Dean's stunning series of cinematic portraits make an argument for the primacy of film.  Here's a beautiful video from the Guardian, where Dean explains how she crafted her film:

But this is what we'd like to know: When you watch a movie, how much does its delivery method matter to you? Is there a difference between a film that's downloaded to a server vs. one  that's unspooled on a projector? Do you have a preference?

Readers:  What do you think? Is 35mm film and projection worth saving?
 

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30 Comments

  • Joe | July 15, 2012 10:08 PMReply

    The are killing the movie theatre with this digital thing, why go to the movies then? just wait till
    it comes out on dvd. I personally hate the idea..

  • Ac | July 11, 2012 4:22 PMReply

    When i did go to cinema before it was all a joy it was fantastic picture and sound now it is all digital and i think the picture in the cinema before was much better.

  • Jane | May 24, 2012 6:24 AMReply

    I absolutely hate digital and I will fight to keep 35mm film alive and well. I watch films as they should be.

  • Niti | January 29, 2012 12:01 AMReply

    I think the charm of going to see a film is see it on a 35mm film projector.Sadly it is all going to be digital cinema in multiplex without the fun of a old cinema.Soon we will be at cross road
    of seeing a film in cinema or wait for the dvd because digital is more less the same thing expect
    for the screen size.

  • jdoe | November 20, 2011 9:44 PMReply

    I like watching movies on my smartphone so I'm assuming my opinion won't add much to this discussion. I'll sit this one out.

  • Andy | November 20, 2011 5:06 PMReply

    The thing that is really disappointing is that the distributors attempt to deny audiences a chance to see existing 35mm prints of classic films shows an utter disregard to the craft and medium of film. They are dictating the culture of indifference to the delivery of the film product. I've seen a 70mm print of 2001 A Space Odyssey at The Astor in Melbourne Australia and was immersed in the experience, yet when I enquired as to a friends experience of 2001, he found it 'boring' and was distracted. Why? He was watching it on a laptop with nothing but the tiny laptop speakers. It is more expensive to convert a film to DCP than it is to continue the exhibition of 35mm prints. When movies moved from VHS to DVD we saw massive amounts of titles disappear for good, and with DVD to Blu Ray turfing thousands more movies from memory, we run the risk of losing so many classics. Why should a perfectly good print of an obscure cult classic be left to rot when there is an audience for it. Leaving fans with bootlegged torrents as the only alternative is like removing paintings from galler walls because you can see them on your iPad. There is still demand and will always be demand for the print medium. Most of those studios run things based on their flimsy market research tactics (the same people releasing countless remakes to dismal box office returns over and over again like its a good idea), so film fans need to be vocal and loud. Will we let the American Cinemateque, The New Beverly, The Astor Melbourne die due to studio short sightedness? Imagine a world where the only chance to see a movie is multiplex crud amongst the masses that openly talk and text throughout, or the isolated solitary experience a home, as Apple and Netflix continue to ensure your entertainment experience is one of solitude and image compression.

  • Robert Miniaci | November 18, 2011 10:55 AMReply

    At Robert Film Services, we strive to preserve, advance and perfect the traditional movie experience. With our over 32 years dedicated to 16 mm and 35 mm film, our clients have stopped searching for their hard-to-find cinematic needs and have instead come to rely on our expertise. Over the years, we have supplied and upgraded numerous theaters and drive-ins in North America, projected films in countless locations both indoors and outdoors, customized thousands of loopers and projectors, worked for artists and festivals world-wide, and helped theater owners stay in business by offering quality service at the best price.

    Our services include sale, rent and installation of:
    • used and re-conditioned 35mm, 16mm and 8mm projectors
    • sound equipment such as processors and speakers (Including Dolby Sound Systems)
    • lenses
    • custom lenses (specialized & self-made, not produced my any other manufacturer)
    • bulbs
    • rare projector parts and accessories
    • booth equipment such as splicing tape, splicers, lens cleaners and cloths, platters and rewinders

    At RFS, we strongly believe that despite advancements in digital entertainment, it is important to help maintain the true and original format of film. Our experience has shown us time and time again that digital is a far more expensive medium for cinema-viewing than celluloid film. More importantly, the picture quality obtained with our patented Technalight™ (2007) system for 35mm projectors is proven superior to digital. We created Technalight™ back in 2000 as a means of maintaining the integrity of the true film experience and addressing the large screen problem that had been created during the massive expansion with the major exhibitors in the US and Canada. We have since achieved the first full-screen Imax presentation with 35mm format. Our system is designed as a retrofit kit that is easily installed into all makes of 35mm film projectors. The Technalight™ illumination system delivers a superior ultra-sharp image in full color spectrum, restoring brilliance, clarity and resolution to the 35mm projected image.

    Whether you are a theater owner, an artist, an event organizer or simply intrigued by the authenticity of film, we are all essential parts of the international film community. Please do not hesitate to contact us for all your cinematic needs. From all of us at RFS, take care and we are looking forward to hearing from you.

    Robert Film Sevices
    7075 Pl. Robert Joncas
    S. Laurent, Qc H4M 2Z2
    Tel. :514-337-4956

  • Thomas | November 17, 2011 1:52 PMReply

    Film is art like any other, and should be exhibited in its original form. If it was shot on film, it should be presented on film, either 35mm, 70mm, or IMAX in the case of "The Dark Knight" which had scenes shot in that format. It's not unlike going to an art museum to see an original work in respect to repertory/classic film screenings. Most modern films are edited and effects added in the digital realm, so it makes sense to project those digitally. But studios are making a BIG mistake by getting rid of archival film prints all together. It's like making a digital copy of an oil painting, and throwing the original in the trash.
    If the studios don't care, I guess it's up to the directors and producers if they want to keep and maintain their works privately...

  • ik | November 17, 2011 12:03 PMReply

    It's important to advocate for the studios to keep 35mm prints available for repertory and art cinemas. I have no problem watching digitally shot films in a digital projection but seeing films intended for 35mm projection on a lesser digital format is just not an option - and it's delusional to think that studios will transfer all of their 35mm libraries to high definition digital. i'm there with Toby.

  • Toby | November 17, 2011 10:10 AMReply

    The potential move of studios to shut off their archives to cinemas with repertory programs can only stunt film culture as a whole. There are not DCPs or BluRays available for the overwhelming majority of these libraries and the cost of doing so FAR outweighs the cost of maintaining 35mm libraries. As a result, you'll only be able to see the films that the studio sees fit to make available on whatever platforms. Like the current state of Netflix streaming for digging deep into the catalogues of your favorite directors, performers and cinematographers? If so, then I guess you needn't worry.

  • Anastasiya | November 17, 2011 7:20 AMReply

    It's difficult to say whether the delivery method actually matters for me. I always try to compare cinema to other art forms, and all of them have experienced media changes I think.
    Before becoming a film student, I had not even noticed whether a film was shot digitally or on film, but as I started learning in depth about the whole process of shooting on film I became inspired by it. There's always some sense of trepidation about film. However, is it simply my perception of reality? Is there really something magical about film or it's just me being enamoured with something that might not matter in the future? After all, writers seem to fare quite well without typewriters, quills and parchments, although some minor eccentric bunch might still be using those.
    There's no absolute answer for this question now. So far I know there's a special atmosphere in the cinema that projects a film, but whether the next filmmaking generation will feel that way, I'm not really sure.

  • Gord Vass | November 17, 2011 5:33 AMReply

    From a business perspective, that's great news. From a nostalgia perspective, not so much. My friends laughed at me when I installed a cassette deck in my brand new '71 Super Beetle. "Vass, are you crazy? Why didn't you get an 8 track?" Do the math.

  • Neil Oseman | November 17, 2011 5:18 AMReply

    The end of film is a terrible thing. Cinema is nothing without the weave, the flicker and the scratches of that wonderful chemical medium. If I want to see something screened digitally I'll stay at home.

  • Lou S | November 17, 2011 5:16 AMReply

    Tree of Life did screen digitally in most theatres that have digital projectors installed- and it looked just as lovely. Chances are people have seen more digital films than they are aware of. Digital projection, although it still has kinks to be ironed out in some systems (and in individual cinema set-ups), also leaves less room for projectionist screw ups or laziness (which, when there are so few people actually trained as 'film' projectionists now, can only be a good thing). No more scratching, projecting in the wrong aspect, cutting frames, dirty prints, poor shipping and handling...etc.
    I'm all for digital now that the power of the lamps in these projectors can be strong enough, but I think more standardisation needs to be introduced worldwide, although it is getting better all the time. But I still think archive prints should be maintained for a long while yet and made available to cinemas that can't afford to go digital.
    Also, digial is better for the environment all round I'd say.

  • Jamie | May 30, 2012 12:55 AM

    Digital sucks, end of! I have watched classics films shot on 35mm projected using Blu Ray and they look like total crap. I was right up the front thinking we would be watching a nice 35mm print of the Dark Crystal and then we are informed that it's on Blu Ray. It was FAT experience if you know what I mean. At the end of the movie I got a refund. Fair enough I agree that Avatar which was shot digitally looked amazing, but the 35mm filmed movies look shit when the are projected uding digital and I will never waste my hard earned money on these screenings. If you want to pay for an inferior experience be my guest, cause that's what you'll be getting.

  • Alifeleti | November 16, 2011 11:30 PMReply

    The digitization of cinemas is being prematurely forced, in part thanks to the pressure to uptake new digital projectors after the Avatar 3D fad. The resolution/quality of digital is still not yet comparable enough to celluloid to warrant the widespread changeover that is happening, both in mainstream and festival cinemas (The recent New York Film Festival screened everything in digital this year - a truly worrying phenomenon).

    Circulating digital 4K versions of archive prints and calling them restorations is still for me highly suspect. A digital restoration of anything shot on Celluloid before, say, 2005, is going to result in loss of projection quality and neglect of appreciation of the original as it was made and intended to be seen. If something was shot on 4K then let it be projected on 4K. But projecting something like Taxi Driver on 4K, whilst definitely preferable to 2K or even just HD, still makes no sense. You're still not technically seeing Taxi Driver. Even if Scorcese has overseen the production of the 4K version. I'm pretty sure he's not, like David Lynch in the case of Eraserhead, saying we should toss out the 35mm version and move on.

    Of course, we want people to have a chance to see rare and difficult to find films in the cinema. But for me this means archivists, curators, cinemas and ESPECIALLY industry and screen funding bodies should be willing to do the work and cough up the money necessary to maintain proper celluloid restoration, circulation and projection. We're settling for digital because its cheaper and easier for certain powers in the film industry (not so much the archivists and curators and the respective cultural heritage organizations they work for, who are and have always been, willing to work and give the necessary time and effort to caring for our screen heritage, regardless of how much they get paid, but the studios and funding bodies whose support is needed to keep these organizations alive and afloat).

  • David Cox | November 16, 2011 10:16 PMReply

    What does the death of 35mm mean to me? As one of the characters in "Slacker" says when he says he's just come from his father's funeral: "I thought the bastard would never die..."

    davidalbertcox.com

  • Kirk | November 16, 2011 7:01 PMReply

    Here is why it matters if repertory theatres can no longer get film prints. Once distributors with archival prints stop lending to arthouse theatres, there will be hundreds of films you will not be able to see, at all, possibly ever again. And thousands more you will only be able to see at DVD quality or worse (480 lines of resolution compared to the well over theoretical 2000 lines of film) Also, in a 2007 study, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found the cost of storing 4K digital masters to be "enormously higher - 1100% higher - than the cost of storing film masters." So what you can expect to happen is for all of those film prints that were getting put in to play by thoughtful and knowledgeable film programmers at repertory theatres, to sit on the shelves of some archival warehouse (after many copies of the prints have been thrown out) and await a time when the studios feel like the process has become sufficiently cheap that they can make a few bucks off of a video release on Blu-Ray, or whatever format comes next, which may not be in your lifetime.
    Let me give you what I think is a fair analogy, what if something similar were to happen to your favorite art museum. Lets say that it is decided that the museum no longer wants to keep one of its wings open, (fewer visitors went in there anyway, they reckon) so they close it down to save on costs or put up new art and all of that art then goes down into art storage in a climate controlled basement somewhere. Sure maybe they will release a few posters you can hang on a wall or click through on an internet image search, but you can no longer see it in person and a great deal of that art won't have anyway you can see it, until some indeterminate time in the future. That would be a great cultural loss and this would be too.

  • Elki | November 16, 2011 5:04 PMReply

    It's the end of film as we know it and I feel fine.

  • Johnny | November 16, 2011 5:01 PMReply

    With film labs closing and 35mm projectors being scrapped by the ton there is no going back to the way things were. Give me a real projectionist projecting a changeover 35mm answer print over a DCP any day. Sadly the reality is people equate film with scratches, focus issues, films starting out of frame, and sound issues. All these things can be equated to poor operators in the booth. I enjoy the fact that I can go see a movie in digital 4 weeks after it opened and it still looks like it did on the first show. Film will live on but only in specialized venues such as theatres attached to archives and museums.

  • Dick May | November 16, 2011 4:57 PMReply

    Yes, film prints are worth saving. At the same time, I have no objection to a properly transferred digital file for projection, as even though I've spent many years in working with film, I often can't tell the difference.
    I don't expect to see the owners of any movies other than current ones transferring them to digital in any quantity (meaning extensive digging into the inventory). Film prints are expensive, especially one at a time. This makes their use for repertory theaters a delicate thing, since while the good exhibitors are extremely careful, there are too many who are reckless with prints, causing irreparable damage.
    This is a real dilemma, since digital is as inevitable as sound was 80 years ago. It needs a lot more serious thought.

  • RHIDIAN | November 16, 2011 4:45 PMReply

    There's a very significant difference between a digital-positive approach to wide distribution and freezing the supply of archive 35mm prints to repertory and specialist cinemas. The former has the potential to broaden the range of new independent films available to the public in cinemas, although the outcomes here are by no means certain. The latter has the clear and demonstrable effect of reducing the diversity of films available to the public. The fact is that while digital restoration and distribution of archive titles is a growing concern, the vast majority of past releases will remain only available on their original distribution formats for a long Romero come.

  • Craig | November 16, 2011 2:56 PMReply

    I think it'll help indies. That film print is an expensive deliverable for little movies. I think that lowering the "P" in P&A is going to be valuable to everyone in the business.

    Of course projected film prints are cooler. But most stuff still looks pretty effin' awesome projected digital. And more and more, stuff is originated digitally anyway, so it's actually a quality degradation (or at least augmentation) to watch it on film. Kinda surprised at myself for being on that side of the argument, cuz film prints are great (and I like all the scratches and cigarette burns and whatever). But it'll help transform everything once we're fully switched over.

  • Kirk | November 16, 2011 6:19 PM

    You say it will help the indies, but it doesn't help the "indie" theatres which is the only place you can typically see truly "indie" films (not large studio and distributors with branches they call "indie"). If the arthouse theatres can't afford the huge upfront expense of DCI compliant digital projectors then they can't show the same digital prints (DCPs) that are the deliverables that you say the independent filmmakers can now afford. So where will they show their films? Not at the 3D megaplexes (well maybe on one screen for a week, if they are lucky). The thing is once we are fully switched over the independent theatre will be greatly thinned and the outlets for seeing films you can't see anyway else will be great diminished.

  • Michele | November 16, 2011 2:37 PMReply

    It is really a moot point. The digital cinema conversion is a fact - 90% of the screens in North America will be digital by the end of 2012, and the rest of the world is on a similar path. The exciting part is that digital systems enable cinemas to easily program more and varied types of content, including more indie films, live events, live 3D, interactivity and "on demand" programming. It is a big opportunity for content owners, exhibitors and audiences alike.

  • Leo | November 16, 2011 2:16 PMReply

    Like every other 'threatened' technology, perhaps they shouldn't dissapear but just be left for cinemas in museums or specialized theaters, that way kids and people can learn how it all began and how it feels like, same with cameras and music tapes, etc...

  • José | November 16, 2011 2:04 PMReply

    I really dislike digital at theaters. I don't know exactly why, but it does look ugly. Imagine "The tree of life" in digital... That doesn't make any sense to me.

  • Henry-Stewart | December 21, 2012 8:43 AM

    I'm also a fan of 35mm and as a projectionist myself, I can tell you that a hell of a lot more jobs have been lost thanks to the digital changeover @Alex.
    Whilst Digital Cinema certainly has it's place I feel it is a real error both by cinemas and distributors that iconic pieces of cinematic history may be lost forever thanks to the D-Cinema rollout.

  • Alex | November 17, 2011 5:24 AM

    I saw tree of life in digital - it was beautiful. The opening shot is of space/ heaven - this visual effect was rendered on a computer, not filmed.

    I'm not sure what projectors people have seen? I guess digital, like film, can be good or bad depending on the technology and/or projectionist.

    Indeed the old craft of film projection will be lost - but it will give birth to new jobs in other areas. The engineers that create the projectors, the colour graders that tweak the image and many more unsung heros of modern cinema. Protecting an obsolete craft is as logical as littering because someone picks it up for a living, and you don't want to put them out of work.

  • Peter | November 16, 2011 12:46 PMReply

    I don't know how much it matters, while I like to see films being films, I have accepted movies being made digitally. They look beautiful in their own way. And I have seen digital projections and they look great too. I am frequently more annoyed than pleased by scratched up, written on, dirty film prints, especially of old films.

    The point of the theatre is the isolation and shared audience as well as presentation method. That's what separates it from the home experience. I personally don't care if film projection goes away. I would still be happy to see it as small, older venues that would be fun to seek out now and again, but it is obsolete, no point clinging on to it, it offers no advantage, and "human touch" on a film, rather than in a film, is not really a good thing.