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The 35mm Battle Continues: ‘Let’s petition Ford to reopen the Model T production line’

The 35mm Battle Continues: 'Let's petition Ford to reopen the Model T production line'

We received a lot of comments and Tweets about our recent article on the petition to save 35mm — and the discussion has traveled to the UK, where University of Leeds’ Leo Enticknap has a very different opinion.

Enticknap is not on the sidelines of this debate; he’s a faculty member for the Institute of Communications Studies, where he serves as the institute’s cinema director and as a lecturer in cinema. He originally expressed this opinion on the Association of Moving Image Archivists online forum, where it was noted by forum member (and Indiewire film critic) Eric Kohn; it’s republished here with Enticknap’s kind permission.

OK, and let’s petition Ford to reopen the Model T production line, and ban all performances of Mozart’s piano concertos on anything other than an eighteenth century fortepiano while we’re at it.

Quote from the petition:

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.

Agreed.  And that audience isn’t any the less communal if they’re watching a DCP.  Trust me.  You can still be scared when King Kong stomps around munching the natives, shed a tear when Ingrid Bergman gets on the plane and giggle as Bruce Willis is introduced to The Gimp.  None of that is going to change.  But, apart from in a tiny handful of theatres worldwide, you can no longer watch King Kong’s rampage on an alumised, tobacco-smoke resistant screen, lit by a carbon arc lamp and projected on a nitrate print through a really s****y (by 21st century standards) 1930s, f5 lens that is only able to focus a small patch of the dead centre of the image.  Yet I’m not aware of the format purist brigade having fought campaigns against the introduction of safety film, the xenon lamp, computerised glass grinding in lens manufacture and the banning of smoking in theatres.

If the concern of this theatre owner is that the transition to DCPs is going to mean that, in the short term at least, a significant number of archive and rep titles simply won’t be available for screening at all, then this is a valid concern that the archive community needs to engage with.  When a government-funded scheme to provide British arthouses with digital projectors was launched 5-6 years ago, one of my concerns at the time was that its backers seemed to believe that every film currently available on 35mm would suddenly become available on DCP as if by magic.  They didn’t, and they still aren’t.  The cost of digital projectors is also an issue, and again, providing help for venues that are likely to be hit hard by it is something else we need to look at.  The same goes for projectionists whose jobs are disappearing.  I know that many mainstream theatre chains have done good work in helping these folks transition into management and other roles, and hope very much that ways can be found to help smaller venues do likewise.

But nostalgia is not a valid reason for keeping an obsolete technology on life support in the mainstream.  Film is a wonderful preservation medium – still the best for moving images that was ever invented, bar none.  But as a technology for facilitating theatrical, communal viewing access, it has now been superseded by any objective measure, just as the alumised screen and the carbon arc lamp have.  Thanks largely to the VPF business model, theatre conversions are now at around 70% in the US and 60% in Europe.  We can no more stop the wholesale transition to DCP projection in 2011 than we could have prevented silent films going away in 1931.  The emphasis now has to be on developing ways to produce high quality DCPs of existing titles cheaply and efficiently (and ideally proactively, in response to theatres’ and programmers’ demands), and of mitigating the cost of equipment and the disappearance of projectionists’ jobs – not on delaying the inevitable.

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