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