Why You Should Care About the Imminent Death of Film

"By 2013, film will slip to niche status, shown in only a third of theaters. By 2015, used in a paltry 17 percent of global cinemas, venerable old 35 mm film will be mostly gone." The epic life and death struggle between film and digital rolls on, and in LA Weekly's cover story must-read Gendy Alimurung details the sobering -- and imminent -- sea change in film production and exhibition with insights from figures at every stop on the cinematic food chain: Filmmakers, arthouse/rep theaters, film curators, projectionists, preservationists, and even the cold, lonely (and increasingly studio-blocked) vaults that house the dwindling ranks of cinema's remaining 35mm prints.

"Digital is the future!" you might say. "It's cheaper and looks just as good as film!" Great taste, less filling, etc. Many a sentimental plea has been made on behalf of 35mm: The way things are going, repertory houses will find their programming options limited to the smattering of popular titles studio vaults make available. There's that distinguishable living quality to film, with its pops and hisses and beloved imperfections, that digital prints just can't replicate.

Or, as Edgar Wright suggests, shooting on costlier film changes the relationship a director has to the process itself: "Because when you hear the camera whirring, you know that money is going through it. There's a respectfulness that comes when you're burning up film."

Most of that's already been argued, but Alimurung takes pains to appeal to the pragmatic side of digital cheerleaders by pointing out what many proponents of digital film and its many admitted benefits (lower cost, ease of production, cheaper distribution methods) seldom have an answer for: the long-term hazards of going exclusively digital.

"The main problem is format obsolescence. File formats can go obsolete in a matter of months. On this subject, [UCLA Film & Television Archive director Jan-Christopher Horak's] every sentence requires an exclamation mark. "In the last 10 years of digitality, we've gone through 20 formats!" he says. "Every 18 months we're getting a new format!"

So every two years, data must be transferred, or "migrated," to a new device. If that doesn't happen, the data may never being accessible again. Technology can advance too far ahead."

But the demands and costs of constant technological upgrades aren't the only issue with the industry moving exclusively to digital.

"In the digital realm, the archivist's mantra, "Store and ignore," fails. If you don't "refresh," or occasionally turn on a hard drive, it stops working. You can't just stick it on a shelf and forget about it. As restorationist Ross Lipman says, 'You're shifting from a model focused on a physical object to data. And where the data lives will be constantly changing.'"

What's saddest is that there isn't an easy solution to be offered other than appealing to the studios (and, it's worth noting, the vast majority of allied theater chains represented by the National Association of Theater Owners) to leave room for niche 35mm film culture to live on while their charge into the digital future continues. Major changes are in store for everyone -- not just the studios, or the theater owners, or the increasingly obsolete ranks of actual trained projectionists, or the ticket-buyers.

So yes, a storm's coming. What can be done about it? Discuss.

[LA Weekly]

Photo: Julia Marchese of the New Beverly Cinema, Jennie Warren for LA Weekly


  • Terry says:

    This country no longer produces films worth seeing, apart from two or three per year. The loss won't even be noticed because nothing of any value is being lost. The only movies worth seeing are foreign language films. American films are made for dumb 13-year-old boys, and that's that. It's over. Pretending otherwise is pure sentimentality. Where do people get the energy or interest to review the weekly glut of junk this country produces?

    • j'accuse! says:

      Dude, as much as I also liked that Studio 60 first ep monologue about the death of culture, things aren't as bad as you say. Did you see Bellflower? There are loads of startup independent film producers out there making unique and challenging works of art. And as for sentimentality, the only reason the bulk of early film is seen as great is because of it. Coney Island and the Tramp films aren't towering works of genius, they're fun, slapstick and occasionally risqué (for the time). There has never been a golden age where all people, common and refined, enjoyed the same high class artistic entertainment. There has always been a huge bulk of stuff that was made for people with middling to low taste. So vote with your dollars, enjoy what you enjoy, and try to be happy. Really. Just try it.

      • Terry says:

        People uncultured in the history of film art are always willing to make excuses for the junk, the kitsch, and the trash that routinely churn out of Hollywood. Foreign film makers and viewers see American film as Disneyland rides, bereft of meaning of depth of any kind. But those with an appetite to see a million more Transformers are in luck. As for independent film in America, it is very nearly dead, if you did not know. The best films are foreign language films that address adults as adults, instead of mindless children and their grown-up counterparts. PS. I've never like Chaplin, so your stereotyping is very off the mark. People in foreign countries simply laugh out loud at the thought this country makes movies for anybody except especially impressionable and pointedly dumb little boys. Sorry if the truth hurts, but this period of American film is already being referred to as the dark ages. Learn more about film art and you will see how foolish and unconvincing your defense of junk really is.

        • j'accuse! says:

          At no point in my comment did I engage in a "defense of junk". I merely point out some holes in the criticism that good American films aren't being made anymore, and point out that there has always been a steady supply of both low and high art. Occasionally high art breaks through into mass popularity, but there has always been a portion of the population that doesn't particularly care for high quality.

          Beyond that, your claim that independent film in America is very nearly dead is patently false. There is a great crop of new artists in this country making some really interesting work that deserves recognition and support. Add to it the fact that digital production and distribution have allowed more people to participate. The presence of bloated obnoxious tent-pole flicks doesn't negate the good work that's being done. You just have to look for it.

          Beyond that, if foreign film viewers hold such little regard for American cinema, how do you explain the fact that for many wide release American "popcorn" flicks, the foreign audience constitutes the bulk of the gross? Are your famed foreign aesthetes just masochists who enjoy debasing themselves by viewing vulgar American theme park rides?

          Reality is far more nuanced than the picture you've painted here. Sure, there are loads of bad American films. There are also loads of bad foreign films (The Human Centipede is Dutch). There's reason for hope, even if you still disagree with me. Perhaps you can take your dissatisfaction with the current state of American cinema and create some of your own instead of bemoaning the state of things here? It's a thought...

          • Terry says:

            Sorry if the truth hurts. You write like a Paulette, worshipful of junk. Well, you Paulette's won. Now virtually every studio film this country produces is simply trash. Foreigners go to American films with the same expectation that people get on ride at an amusement park---no expectation of anything except a sensual experience, without the brain. Foreigners flock to nonjunk American films to enrich their lives. Hollywood just doesn't exist as a source any longer for thoughtful filmmaking. If you were cultured you would understand this. But likely you have been raised on the junk that began coming out during the Reagan years. You have no aesthetic, no interest in foreign films, and can only make excuses for American junk. The situation for female actors in this country is getting worse, and female involvement in deal making compared with men is almost zero. American films are conceived and made for 13-year-old boys without a idea in their head. If you wish to make excuses for the junk, fine, but don't think the rest of us are as utterly unknowledgeable about the history of film as you are. If you like the junk, go see it. It's being made for you.

          • j'accuse! says:

            Wow dude. Do tell, at what point did I worship junk? Which specific comment did I make where I said I admired or worshiped junk? You also make several adamant assertions about me that aren't supported by my comments. Raised on Reagan era junk? Have no aesthetic? No interest in foreign films? Makes excuses for American junk? While the aesthetic comment is subjective and up for debate, the rest are flatly incorrect.

            I'm not sure why you seem to think, "foreigners," have the market cornered on sophistication. Spend some time with some actual foreigners and you'll discover approximately the same basic percentage of aesthetes as you will in America. Good taste is good taste, bad taste is bad taste - it's not inherently linked to nationality or race.

            If you are an American, I might suggest that all this self loathing isn't healthy. Furthermore, if you want to have an actual conversation, you might consider reading and responding to comments other participants have made, rather than batting away at straw men. Simply stating an opinion, and then stating that anyone who doesn't agree must not share your high level of sophistication is a nonstarter in a conversation and not productive.

            Really man...here's a thought. Take a vacation, do some breathing exercises, meet some people, drink some wine, eat some good food, read a little...enjoy life. Appreciate the things you appreciate and stop being so negative. It's taking years off your life you know.

          • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

            and know quality when you're conversing with "it."