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FIRST PERSON | Film Historian David Bordwell Releases His Authoritative History of the Digital Transition

FIRST PERSON | Film Historian David Bordwell Releases His Authoritative History of the Digital Transition

Film historian David Bordwell, who with his wife Kristin Thompson has written the popular intro to film textbook “Film Art” for several decades and was profiled on Indiewire several weeks ago in our Movie Lovers we Love column, has been investigating the digital transition in movie theaters for some time now on his blog.

He’s expanded his thoughts into an ebook, “Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies,” available for purchase on his website. The introduction is below, reprinted with Professor Bordwell’s permission, in which he provides the lay of the land in today’s film — no, video — industry:


Historically, most major film technology has been introduced in the production sector and resisted in the exhibition sector. Exhibitors have been right to be conservative. Any tinkering with their business, especially if it involves massive conversion of equipment and auditoriums, can be costly. If the technology doesn’t catch on, as 3D didn’t in the 1950s, millions of dollars can be wasted.

Shooting on digital media posed no threat to theatres as long the finished films were converted to 35mm prints for screening. But distribution has long been the most powerful and profitable sector of the film industry. Today’s major film companies — Warners, Paramount, Sony et al. — dominate the market through distribution. So when the Majors established the Digital Cinema Initiatives standards, exhibitors had to adjust.

Synchronized sound reproduction took about five years to transform most national cinemas, but the digital switchover has come more slowly. In December 2000 the world had about 164,000 screens. Only 30 of them were digital. Five years later 848 were. At the end of 2010, however, 36,103 screens were digital — about 30 percent of the total. In North America, the jump was dramatic, from about 330 digital screens at the end of 2005 to over 16,000 at the end of 2010.

2011 iced the cake. In the United Kingdom, 80 percent of titles released that year were on digital formats. At the annual Cannes Film Festival there were a great many digital screenings, even of films shot in 35mm. In Belgium the two major theatre chains, Kinepolis and UGC, went wholly digital. In Norway all 420 commercial screens were converted, partly because the government funded the change.

In America, the word went forth from John Fithian, the plain-spoken President of the National Association of Theatre Owners. He said in March of 2011:

Based on our assessment of the roll-out schedule and our conversations with our distribution partners, I believe that film prints could be unavailable as early as the end of 2013. Simply put, if you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.

Twentieth Century Fox took the lead in declaring that at the end of 2012 it would circulate no more film prints, including titles handled by its art-house subsidiary Searchlight.

Exhibitors reacted fast. In my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, the dominant chain went digital just before Labor Day 2011 and, with ironic timing, fired its projectionists. Hundreds of U.S. theatres junked nearly all their 35mm equipment, saving only a projector or two for the occasional film print. By the end of the year, about 26,000 of America’s screens were digital — two-thirds of the total.

We have passed the tipping point. By early 2012, over half of the 137,000 screens in the world had converted. The hundreds of new multiplexes opening in China, at the rate of eight screens per day, do not contain reels, splicers, or a scrap of photographic film. “Some time in 2013,” says a spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners, “all the [U.S.] screens will be digital.” By 2015, predicts IHS Screen Digest, 35mm projection will be defunct in commercial cinemas.

As someone who studies film history, I’ve long wished to travel back to witness major changes in the medium I love. I wasn’t alive when exhibitors migrated from storefronts to dedicated venues in the 1910s, or when they wired silent-movie venues for talkies. I was alive, but not especially sentient, when theatres converted to widescreen in the early 1950s. Deprived of a time machine, I’ve longed for on-the-ground reports of what these moments were like. From our vantage point we can study these developments at the macro-level, but witnesses at the moment left us few records of the pulse of change. Working at a distance, we gain perspective and can see connections not apparent to participants; but our distance denies us access to the texture and oscillations of the process as it moved from day to day, month to month.

My goal in this little book is to have my cake and eat it too. I hope that my experience studying film history helps me spot some broad-scale trends at work in today’s shift from film prints to digital files. What forces brought it about? What does the change tell us about the business of making and showing movies? What are the effects, both immediate and long-term, of the conversion? How does it change our experience of movies and moviegoing? Full measure of the changeover will have to await a more judicious and detached view, but I want to offer some first quick sketches of how it happened, with some hunches about why.

Because I’m working from early, sometimes contradictory information, it’s likely that I’ll make some errors of fact, inference, and judgment. Future historians will need to add to and subtract from my account. In the meantime, I hope to capture a sense of immediacy. The process of digital conversion has wriggled and twisted in my grasp, so this book is as much an account of a wrestling match as a record of research. I’d be happy to win two falls out of three.

The most tempting parallel is with the changeover to sound cinema during the 1930s, a wholesale revamping of movie theatres around the world. The comparison is fair up to a point. But the digital revolution in our theatres has been a muffled one. Talkies were markedly, triumphantly different from the silent cinema that they replaced. Everybody noticed that. Today, most moviegoers wouldn’t be aware that they were no longer seeing film prints in their local multiplex. Few would care.

So we have to peer behind the scenes. If we do, we find striking changes. During a severe economic depression, U.S. companies invested a sum estimated at over two billion dollars in digital projection equipment. In the space of a few years, tens of thousands of film projectors, many brand-new, were thrown out as scrap. Thousands of projectionists were fired or reassigned to maintenance tasks. Longer-range, we may expect thousands of screens to close because owners can’t afford the cost of conversion. The digital conversion has strengthened Hollywood’s major companies and the biggest theatre chains, but it has threatened independent distributors and small theatres. Indeed, every area of film culture, from multiplex and art-houses to film festivals and archives, is being profoundly altered.

The change isn’t simply a matter of new technology, or hardware turning into software. It isn’t simply a matter of fancy gear or even the look and sound of images. It involves social processes, the way institutions like filmmaking and film exhibition work. Technology affects relations of power, along with the choices that moviemakers and filmgoers are offered. As films become files, cinema changes in subtle, far-reaching ways. People may not have noticed the difference between a 35mm image and a digital one, but as moviegoing becomes different, so does our sense of what films are, and have been.

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