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Film is Dead. Long Live Digital?

Film is Dead. Long Live Digital?

Film is going away. Not films, the pieces of entertainment we watch starring Sandra Bullock or Jim J. Bullock (don’t judge), but film, the celluloid medium those pieces of entertainment were recorded and exhibited on for more than a century. The future of film is no more film, replaced by whole bunch of 1s and 0s on, at least in the short term, a big external hard drive called a digital cinema package or DCP. Studios ship movie theaters these DCP boxes along with instructions and passwords that allow the film to be unlocked, ingested, and projected.

As a cinephile it can be tough to know how to feel about this. Almost every piece written about the subject is stridently pro-film, which makes sense since most are written by film nerds who came of age in an era when celluloid was the supreme format and digital still looked like garbage. In this world, there’s a lot of advocacy and not a lot of journalism.

Maybe that’s why I appreciated John Lichman‘s article “Why the End of Film is Awesome (Except When It Isn’t).” It’s a slightly more even-handed look at this complicated issue. I particularly like his introduction, which puts a great perspective on a news story that made the rounds not too long ago. It all started when Indiewire’s own Eric Kohn tweeted from a press screening of “The Avengers” which was delayed after the projectionist “accidentally deleted the movie.” With DCP, a movie is little more than an enormous computer file, and as we all know, computer files can be deleted. Drag and drop the wrong icon and whoops! there goes your copy of Joss Whedon’s comic book masterpiece (side question: did no one think to hit Control-Z?). Kohn’s tweet went viral — technology fails make up 18% of all viral news stories — and it was certainly good for a laugh. “You can’t delete film!” celluloid advocates crowed. Well, yes, that’s true —  but here’s how Lichman balances that statement:

“If a physical film print breaks, it snaps or bursts into flames. It’s also impossible to create another pristine 35mm print on the spot, which is what the theater staff did for ‘The Avengers’ — they downloaded another perfect copy in minutes.”

I’ve been to press screenings — and we’ve all been to paid movie exhibitions — that were cancelled because films broke in projectors. One of my earliest memories of going to the movie theater was a screening of “Hook” in 1991. Just after the climactic battle between Peter Pan and Captain Hook, the movie went silent, then slowed down, then melted before our eyes. The packed house leapt from their seats and began screaming. Finally, the employee who’d drawn the shortest straw was sent in to tell us the film had burned in the projector and that neither were fixable at the moment; the rest of the movie was cancelled and refunds would be issued. You’ve never seen an angrier mob — it was like Altamont in the suburbs. Over “Hook!” To this day, I’ve never seen the end of that movie (I’m basically okay with that).

There are undeniable problems with digital. Upgrading a projection booth to DCP costs absurd amounts of money, and who knows how long DCP will last as a standard of digital projection. I’m pretty pissed off about the fact that the external FireWire drive I bought 6 years ago is already obsolete and I only paid $75 for that. Imagine how I’d feel if in 6 years the DCP system I installed in my single screen movie theater was equally obsolete — and I’d spent tens of thousands of dollars on it? All the documents and photographs and music I had on that FireWire drive are essentially lost forever even though the drive works perfectly (or at least I think it does; hard to tell when you can’t plug it into your computer) — which seems a very plausible future for these DCP drives as well.

There are two sides to this story, and I can see both of them. When I ran Syracuse University’s campus movie program as a college undergraduate, we projected everything on 16mm film. Films came in big cans that had to be lugged from our office to the auditorium where they were projected, a horrifying 10 minute walk uphill. They had to be assembled by hand, a process which cost our tiny organization time and money and was prone to human error. One night the projectionist spliced reel #3 upside-down and backwards. Fixing it — unmounting the film, breaking it apart, finding the reel breaks, flipping the print, reassembling it, remounting it — took almost an hour.  These 16mm prints were shared by colleges all over the country; by the time one made its way to Syracuse, it was often in hideous condition.  At best, they were ugly, faded, and scratched. At worst, they were unprojectable. We almost certainly couldn’t have afforded a DCP system — but man, we could have used it.

On the other hand, I recently attended a my first DCP projection of an archival film, and it was a slightly disappointing experience. The movie was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie” and while the picture was crisp and clear, and the sound was particularly good, the image felt lacking in some intangible way. We didn’t have a print of “Marnie” on hand to do a side-by-side comparison, but to my slightly-better-than-layman’s eyes the DCP just didn’t have the same sense of depth as film. Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery looked great, but they also looked weirdly flat.  

It definitely didn’t feel like celluloid; more like a pretty good Blu-ray. And who wants to pay $12 to see a projection of a pretty good Blu-ray? Maybe the borderline irrational amount of manpower that goes into projecting film — shipping it, lugging it, and splicing it, and focusing it — is part of its appeal.  It’s harder to do, but the results are ultimately better. Going to a movie theater to see digital projection kind of feels like going to a restaurant and ordering Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  Why go to all that trouble for basically the same thing you can get at home?

Film is going away. That much we know. But it’s worth remembering digital has its benefits.  And its pitfalls, too.

Read more of “Why the End of Film is Awesome (Except When It Isn’t).”

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