Journalists get used to perks, avoiding long lines chief among them. However, when a New York press screening for "The Avengers" ran into a technical snafu last week, we had no choice but to wait. Standing in line with a horde of critics and other members of the media, waiting for a loud, fast, expensive franchise movie, I nearly assumed they were keeping us in limbo merely to build our expectations. Then a studio rep popped out with a surprisingly different explanation for the delay.
"We accidentally deleted the movie," he said. "We're downloading it from the server now."
We've all faced the pain of an unexpected software malfunction or human error destroying hours of hard work. But the notion of a deleted movie -- a deleted Hollywood blockbuster, no less -- had an alarming ring to it. In the few minutes I had before security confiscated everyone's phones and let us into the theater, I fired off a tweet:
Eventually, the problem was fixed, our phones bagged, and the movie began. Two-and-a-half hours of dizzying superhero combat later, I emerged from the theater to recover my phone and found that I had received a long string of retweets and gained a new army of followers. More than one suggested the theater projectionist press "Ctrl + Z," that universal keyboard command to undo.
That was only the beginning. Over the next week, several blogs and news outlets picked up the story. Some details were blown out of proportion. (We had to wait about 15 minutes, not two hours.) Slate opened its coverage with a screengrab of my tweet and quoted veteran projectionist Steve Kraus, who confirmed the ease with which a digital movie file can go kaput: "It’s click to delete from the server and an ‘Are you sure?’ confirmation," he said. In other words, as fallible as anything else.
"The Avengers" snafu illustrates a moment of extreme uncertainty as more and more theaters convert to digital-only projection and Hollywood gears up to stop shooting on film altogether. "The Avengers" symbolizes power in many ways -- financial power, technological power, superhero power -- but in this instance it gave ammo to film purists about the instability of new media.
They have plenty to grouse about. Theaters have been suffering from digital projection issues as it were a disease. Earlier this year, a Melbourne theater ran into severe delays with a screening of "Take Shelter" because the key provided to unlock the digital file didn't work, forcing theater staff to hop onto a lengthy cycles of phone calls to gain permission for a new access code. (If it had been a film print locked inside a canister, of course, one could just call a locksmith.) More recently, reports surfaced of digital "Casablanca" screenings around the country that infused the image with terrible blue-green and magenta tones.
In the journalism world, it is often said that three of anything makes a trend, and in this case the pieces have aligned to make a compelling case against the advance of digital projection. The argument goes both ways, though: Film itself is also highly unstable and requires tremendous care to avoid deterioration, especially after repeated use.
As Gendy Alimurung explained in a recent L.A. Weekly story, digital projection also saves studios a lot of money: It costs around $1,500 to print and ship one 35mm copy, ten times more than the price of a digital file. Conversely, the abandonment of film has a trickle-down economic impact as trained projectionists lose their jobs and labs close down.
Digital projection may soon become the norm, but it faces an uphill battle in the quest for operational quality that 35mm has navigated for over a century. Digital projection is the perfect method for screening "The Avengers," a snazzy CGI spectacle that screams digitization in virtually every shot -- except when somebody deletes the movie or, in another recently noted Boston theater incident, fails to properly calibrate the projector, resulting in an ostensibly colorful movie looking like a comic book that went through the wash.