Movies: The tectonic shift
Something is going away, faster than we can notice, and certainly much faster than any of us can comprehend: film. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this issue than most. I’ve spent most of my life discovering films for myself – and then for others – most of which were on the verge of extinction. They lacked distribution, prints were hard-to-find, the films and their makers had been forgotten. Now something else is about to become extinct, and by some estimates, by the end of this year: film itself. Today this means 35mm film – 16mm film, 8mm, Super 8mm and other gauges have already passed and been buried.
The reasons are overwhelmingly driven by the large movie studios and are totally economic. There is nothing wrong with 35mm film. In pristine form, it is beautiful. It has a smell. It shimmers. Projected at 24 frames per second our mind fills in the information missing between the frames, creating a seamless dream sequence, burning a cinematic reality into our brain. “Film,” said Jean-Luc Godard “is truth 24 frames a second.” Truth or not, it is now definitely not 24 frames per second. It is digital.
35mm projectors are being ripped out of theatres and replaced by DCP – digital cinema packages. 35 mm film – for a feature, usually 6-8 reels – scratches, is heavy, and has to be shipped. DCP is a digital file loaded onto and projected as digital video from a server. DCP equipment is expensive – $70,000 or more per theater, and like all modern technologies, in immediate danger of obsolescence. The projection of each movie is specifically coded to the theatre and to specific show times. The theaters are subsidized via a complex recoupment system by the studios. It’s all neat and logical.
The great film theoretician and historian David Bordwell covered many of the issues dealing with DCP conversions in his blog, now collected and edited in an e-book, Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files and the Future of Movies, available at nominal cost as an e-book from his website.
The book is a chiller. The adapt-or-die strategy with DCP threatens to shutter independent movie theatres across the country, particularly those in small towns. DCP plays havoc for film festivals which depend on quick changes of program – something DCP makes difficult because of the storage limitations on each server. There is the preservation issue. If every movie is now a “file”, who preserves it, how and where? It’s film archives – not the studios – which saved much of our essential film heritage. Bordwell is also courageous enough to tackle the issue of how DCP looks. As he points out, it works just great for movies laden with special effects. For small films which depend on visual nuance, less so. Personally, I don’t like the digital look. It’s cold and flat. Even for older, black and white films, there is a difference between how a film looks in 35mm and “digitally restored.” It is, simply, not the same.
Dream-time: If film and its future were a part of a larger discussion of our national cultural heritage, the issues of preservation and independent film should have had a place at the table. This did not happen, and it is obviously naïve to think that it would. The ship has arrived at the dock, and we can only unload its passengers and cargo. We can also pray that this ship is not The Titanic.