Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

A Few Words for 35mm…


Last week, Toby over at the 50 Westerns From The 50s blog wrote a fine post (with linkage to an excellent AV Club article) concerning the shifting state of film distribution in an ever-expanding digital world:

More About This Film Vs. Digital Projection Thing

It’s worth reading — and I’ve signed the petition brought forward by Julia Marchese of our local revival theater, the New Beverly Cinema, that started this online movement and discussion. As Julia so eloquently stated,

“… major film studios have decided that they eventually want to stop renting all archival 35mm film prints entirely because there are so few revival houses left, and because digital is cheap and the cost of storing and shipping prints is high.”

As well, one of Toby’s readers offered an opposing opinion on the subject in a comment (again, read Toby’s post and Johnny Guitar’s comment in response). There are interesting and valid counterpoints on both sides. Another must read piece on the subject would be by film blogger extraordinaire Dennis Cozzalio and his reflections upon it all in his great post from November 30th. So, I find myself writing this from the perspective as a movie-goer, one who had a brief stint as movie theater projectionist long ago, and as someone who straddles the analog and digital at his day job.

There’s enough in all of this, certainly, to get the old brain cycles going. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of the old LP vs. Compact Disc argument. The thing that’s driving this, though, is the Pacific-Asian market and their deployment of new digital systems. Let’s be clear, I’m not blaming that region for the impending death of 35mm film projection in the U.S. They are building and expanding cinema in their part of the world. Of course, they’ll use state of the art equipment. If we here were in that situation, no doubt the we’d do the same. No, all of this reflects the very ‘corporate’ studio decision to move in that direction. It’s very bottom-line. Asia-Pacific is a large market (and will become the largest by sheer population size and growing prosperity alone) and represents a potential customer base that cannot be ignored (especially by corporate executives, that is). It makes all of this a brain-dead and simple verdict for those media conglomerates selling movies.

And yes, I fear it’s still a death-knell when you come down to it, and a sad one for movie-goers like myself. If you remember the old days (and many in this discourse point out that they do), then you probably recall the number of individual theaters that once dotted the U.S. landscape. A good many of them have closed or been demolished. Just go to the Cinema Treasures site, type in a familiar zip code, and examine the list to see how many remain. Most have been consumed by the newer stadium multiplexes in the last couple of decades (along with those ever rising ticket prices). I suspect the older theaters, those still running, find the move to digital daunting (it represents a very real capital upgrade to property, and their way of doing business, and all in trying economic times). Now the studio entity is pushing this down the throat of those remaining on the ladder like distributors and theater owners (whether they are chain or independent) with this edict.

“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.”

It sucks, big time, for hardcore aficionados of cinema and casual movie-goers who occasionally catch wind of a motion picture they’ve heard of and finally want to see on the big screen when given the opportunity, let alone those who’ve devoted their lives or businesses to that art form. If you think about it, film is 35mm. If someone like Michael Mann or James Cameron shoots a motion picture digitally, it’s still cinema. No question. But, it’s not film. And those that were shot on film should be shown in that medium, in my opinion, and this move goes to demolish that. Maybe not immediately, but that’s the end result we’re looking at. Something like ‘Avatar’ did look best onscreen through a theatrical digital system (one of the few using 3-D that did). But you’re not going to convince me that features like ‘Heat’ are not their own special piece of art (every bit as extraordinary) when projected in all of its analog glory (with scratches & changeover cues to boot) in a darkened movie hall using equipment that could have been decades old. 35mm film is worth maintaining if for nothing else than archiving what’s come before and keeping intact what is unique about it all. As a fan, I say there is a place for both digital and analog across the length and breath of today’s movie watchers.

So what will we get out of this move by major film studios? Distribution by digital means? I’ll concede that many establishments will likely go the ‘E-cinema’ route (less costly than the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) ‘D-cinema’ proposed standard) and attempt to show movies through DVD/Blu-ray Disc players in movie plexes rather than install more costly systems. Still, that’s a consumer format (as was Beta and digital tape, Laserdisc, etc.). One that has only a fraction of the movie titles compared to the old VHS tape inventory that came before it with regard to older movies, which was itself a fraction of what was in 35mm film canisters. Want to watch an old movie? Good luck, especially if it is contingent upon studios moving and maintaining them digitally (for both home or theater use). Only AMC and TMC will benefit here as catching a classic film on the big screen will become a thing of the past when archival 35mm film prints go the way of public pay phones.

I agree wholeheartedly with Julia on this. Revival theaters are necessary for those who love film (new, but especially old). Watching a movie in a darkened theater with friends and strangers remains a wonderfully distinctive communal experience, enhanced as only the old craft of 35mm film projection offers. I surmise the same people who continue to enjoy their involvement in such things have a number of DVDs in their own libraries, and are familiar with their varied quality (to say nothing of the wrong aspect ratio U.S. studios stick us with on occasion with older fare) and limited number, as well. Many of whom doubt the wisdom of what’s being proposed.

Will going movies become more of an at-home experience? If so, how is this a good thing? I don’t claim to have an answer for either outside of maintaining film prints. So, there is some real dread to what studios and the bean counters see purely as a business decision. Additionally, what happens when the current digital forms are abandoned, as other formats have been in the past, for a new and supposedly better one in the future? It is the common and hence problematic trait of modern technology. As the N.Y. Times Tech Columnist, David Pogue, has espoused for some time, here and in other places: “Digital photos and videos are great, but don’t expect your grandkids to see them.” For all the problems people with contrary views rightly state about 35mm, the format has been remarkably stable (when preserved correctly) — for distribution, movie theater viewing, and archival purposes. The passage of time is inevitable and takes a toll on everything we touch. Digital is still in its infancy comparatively to film, and consumers have been led to believe it lasts forever, unfortunately. Anyone who has worked in IT services for a while will scoff at that notion.

I once took a document scanning and archiving course years ago and found that people in that profession were working hard developing and using systems to keep bits and bytes in motion. In other words, maintaining data through constant replication and error-correction to prevent it from disappearing right from under their noses. They were dealing with things like bit rot, different and abandoned formats and equipment, and attempting to keep at bay decay across CD/DVDs (and please don’t leave those discs exposed to the sun, either, even if they are in jewel cases) and hard drive mediums. Want to guess what they archived data to? It was still tape for long-term storage because it was a stable medium (remind you of anything?). A hard drive running continuously beyond ten years (even in large, fault-tolerant disk arrays), let alone decades, is rare, even today (and no SysAdmin worth his salt puts his trust in it without backup). Digital can be fragile, just in different ways compared to 35mm film. And don’t get me started on the software needed to read it all — you’re just as likely to have an application die on the vine and maroon you and whatever content you feel is precious as we go further into this realm of 1s and 0s.

Whether it has a standard associated with it or not, things digital can deteriorate, too, over time… especially, if you don’t bother to bring the old hardware and software with you. We’re moving in a direction with a lot of unknowns. Believing in whatever is being proposed, like the abandonment of 35mm film, as something better (or that it will ultimately last) is an act of faith. I hope it isn’t misplaced like the previous decade’s supposed wisdom with the bond market and sub-prime mortgages. Sorry to drone and opine on, but just because things are going virtual doesn’t mean it’s not without its own set of problems, especially in the long-term. “But, the world is now digital and we should move on“, say some of you. To that I ask,”Is it?” Or, do we just see the same analog world through digital filters? To skew Morpheus’ retort from The Matrix (1999) to Neo: “Do you think that’s [digital] air you’re breathing now?” Hmm…

I’m not sure I trust commercial interests to maintain the ‘art’ of cinema, either. But, we’re stuck with them… unfortunately. Still, if we’ve learned anything about what moving away from all things analog and into a digital future it’s that they look nothing alike. Compare ‘Avatar’ to ‘Heat’, or for that matter ‘The Big Country’ to ‘Casablanca’. Preserving 35mm film is worth it for these alone, and the multitude of titles out there worth experiencing in the fashion intended. And by the way, please show me the evidence that making such an effort to keep cinema or its 35mm endowment ever put a studio out of business. It’s an asset, not a liability. Besides, you know the corporations simply pass along whatever the cost to the consumer, anyways. But at least, we’d maintain the ability of dedicated houses like the New Beverly to show that legacy up on a screen.

I’ll leave you with an exchange from a movie shot on film (even if it is from a director I loathe for his recent work), ‘The Rock’ (1996). It’ll conceivably show that I’m as far away from an art house film connoisseur, or one permanently stuck in the old ways, as it gets. But, at least the analogy captures my feelings, and the sentiment of fans, for 35mm film, a medium that still has a place for those of us who go to theaters to see movies:

Isherwood: “What’s that? And why did you have it sent here?”
Stanley Goodspeed: “Carla wouldn’t approve. She thinks it’s dumb to spend $600 on an LP.”
Isherwood: “Carla’s right. Why didn’t you just spend $13 on a CD, man?”
Stanley Goodspeed: “Well, first of all, it’s because I’m a Beatlemaniac. And second, these sound better.”

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20 Responses to “A Few Words for 35mm…”

  1. Herbster

    Wow, great post. I can feel your pain. Unfortunately, time marches on. I know I’m old by the same ol cliches coming out of my mouth that I heard from my elders. I still like the big screen, BUT I feel the experience cannot be supported by the few people willing to fork over the money for old movies. Just last month while watching West Side Story in a Cinerama restored theater, the film stopped four times and the sound was lost twice for minutes. It was date night for the Wifey and I. I know I would have enjoyed the all aspects of the movie, sound, music, dialogue, much more at home on our Epson hd front projector,(700.00) with 5.1 SS. I would have missed the ferry ride, the bus ride, the city I love and its people, the smell of chocolate popcorn, (yuck), all the gray hairs and the angry customer chewing on the manager.
    Ok, its your blog and I’m starting to ramble, sorrrrrrry. Oh hell, I forgot my point.
    Should film be preserved? Yes, but It will not be. The billionaires can save Cinerama in Seattle, but we little guys buying dvds and cheap front projectors are the ones “saving” cinema. It is not about the medium it is about the vision and sound, what’s happening up there on the screen.

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    • le0pard13

      Sounds like quite an experience up in Seattle, Herb. I’m for anyone watching and experiencing a movie at home or in a theater. The continuation of keeping 35mm going doesn’t preclude that, but the tide against is getting higher. Your ‘West Side Story’ experience is a good example for digital (especially with the new Blu-ray Disc 50th Anniversary release) and for the revival theater event. However, only a fraction of the films ever released are on consumer media. Sometimes, the only way to see them is at places like the New Beverly Cinema, but only if studios make prints available. I’m not a Luddite (especially if you see what’s in my house ;-)). Just someone who wishes to hold on to sometime special, particularly if it doesn’t really affect releases to the home market. Thanks for joining in on the discussion, Herb.

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  2. dirtywithclass

    Good post. I’m not sure i can i can really comment on this subject being so young, but i do feel that there should always be a way to check out older films.

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  3. Movies I’d like to see at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont | World (and Lunar) Domination

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  4. rtm

    Abandoning 35 mm films??? That’s just a ludicrous idea. I’m so with you about preserving ’em. I’ve been watching a lot of classic movies lately and I just have such new appreciation for films from Hollywood golden era, where it’s more about the dialog than special effects. Now of course I enjoy films like Avatar too, but I do hope that more people can appreciate the ‘older’ technology even as new ones are being made. Now since you mention ‘The Big Country’, I wish I had seen that in its cinematic glory [sigh]

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    • le0pard13

      There’s certainly room in both media for movie goers. Thanks for the comment and the mention of ‘The Big Country’, Ruth. Checking out some classics like that on a movie hall screen, especially those widescreen epics, are great experiences that should be given a chance to continue.

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  5. Novroz

    Interesting post, Mike. Very thoughtful. I never really thought about it, I don’t even know the different between them. But I think digital has more benefit in storage term.

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  6. ImperialGuy

    Great story and I’m with you, Julia and The New Beverly all the way. Sadly, I don’t think most of the moviegoing public cares about format. To me, digital lacks the depth of 35mm. I can watch a big tv screen at home but nothing compares to film projected on a big screen, with a crowd of supporters. Only animation and effects heavy pictures like Avatar even come close. Full disclosure; I’ve worked as a projectionist on and off for over 20 years. Yes, digital does make our job easier but I still have my doubts about it as a long term infallible format.

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    • le0pard13

      Welcome, IG. I’m glad you could offer your thoughts here on the subject. Yes, sadly I also think most of the moviegoing public don’t see this plea for 35mm film as something that pertains to them. The growth of home theater and the films of today are probably a factor. Those of us who’ve projected actual film on to a movie theater screen (at sometime or another) and witnessed the magic of that experience have been privy to something quite special. Like many who’ve kept vinyl going for LP music all these year later, I sincerely hope this format and its followers have similar to the coming years. It is well worth preserving.

      “Yes, digital does make our job easier but I still have my doubts about it as a long term infallible format.”

      True. The jury is still out on this. Thanks so much for contributing and adding to the discussion.

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  7. Castor

    Steven Spielberg was saying in a Q&A for War Horse how he will always shoot with celluloid but that it’s possible than in a decade’s time, there might not be any lab still in business to develop those and everyone will have to move to digital.

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    • le0pard13

      I did hear about him saying that. And yes, that could well be true. Younger future filmmakers today are learning the craft from a purely digital perspective. Nothing wrong with that. I just hope the legacy that’s been built, which has impact and/or influence on those future directors and artists, doesn’t get lost in the process. Thanks, Castor.

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