From 35mm to DCP: A Critical Symposium on the Changing Face of Motion Picture Exhibition (Preview)
by David Bordwell, Bruce Goldstein, J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and others
It’s no secret by now that the digital tsunami that has overtaken so many dimensions of our lives has transformed our relationship to the movies. Much of this transformation has long since been accomplished: when it comes to shooting and editing motion pictures, the scales tipped toward digital some years ago; and thanks to DVD, Blu-ray, and online streaming and downloading, the vast majority of cinematic consumption is taking place via TVs, computers, or other devices. But theatrical exhibition has been the last stronghold of the traditional film print—until recently in the nation’s multiplexes, and even today in smaller theaters and rep houses, going to the movies has meant gathering in a theater where trained projectionists have heaved bulky 35mm, celluloid- or polyester-based film prints onto projection reels or platters, and threaded them up on clattering, hulking, intricate machines that have changed very little over the past century. But the digital wave that has been looming over movie theaters for quite some time has finally broken, and the speed with which the transition is being enacted is remarkable—by the end of 2013, the major studios will have ceased creating film prints of new titles, and nearly all U.S. theaters are expected to have gone digital, most of them transitioning to the new projection format of Digital Cinema Package (DCP), a set of encrypted files provided on a hard drive. For most moviegoers, 35mm will have become a thing of the past.
Fueled by a conviction that this transition brings with it important and wide-ranging repercussions with regard to film culture, and that it’s critical to investigate and debate these consequences, we have organized this Critical Symposium, inviting a range of people—repertory cinema programmers, studio representatives, critics, and scholars—to respond to a questionnaire on the topic. The responses represent a range of different perspectives on this momentous period in the history of film exhibition, a sea change that is nevertheless going largely un-noticed in the culture at large.
There are several dimensions to the transition, but perhaps the most uncertain is the impact on repertory film exhibition—in other words, on the exhibition not of contemporary motion pictures (the majority of which, at this point, are digital-born), but of works from the cinema’s first century-plus. While in the multiplexes and other commercial theaters the digital transition is, or very soon will be, a fait accompli, repertory cinemas devoted to keeping classic films in circulation face a less clear-cut set of challenges, pressures, and decisions. At the moment, many of these cinemas are able to continue showing the majority of their programming from film prints, thanks to the studios’ and distributors’ continuing commitment to their libraries, and to the willingness of various film archives and collectors to loan their prints. Increasingly, however, pressure is being applied to screen digital transfers of older titles, via DCP or even simply on Blu-ray or DVD—and, given the ease of screening digitally, the savings involved in avoiding the shipment of heavy 35mm prints, and the fact that many circulating prints are in mediocre condition (beat up, faded, and scratchy), these pressures are not easy to resist. The likelihood that the films of the past will increasingly be seen digitally, rather than on their original format, raises a number of questions that have not been adequately and fully discussed thus far, and we hope this Critical Symposium will illuminate some of these issues.
Perhaps the most profound and basic of these questions is simply: Does the medium matter? Or, more precisely, does the format on which a film is seen make a significant difference in how one experiences and responds to it? The consensus among the respondents is, unsurprisingly, that it does make a difference. But there’s a great diversity of opinion as to how great this difference is—or, given that the transition to digital is seen (like it or not) as inevitable, as to how productive it is to dwell on this difference. This is a thorny issue, and our questionnaire attempts to acknowledge the two opposite extremes in considering it: on the one hand, an insensitivity to the ways in which the nature of the medium influences one’s experience of the film, and, on the other, a fetishistic or nostalgic overemphasis on the particular textures of 35mm.
Most of the respondents here steer a path somewhere between these two poles, mourning the eclipse of 35mm even as they demonstrate a more or less philosophical attitude toward a transition they recognize as largely inescapable (and most likely, in the minds of much of the general public, more of a technicality than a tragedy). But there’s also a consensus that, no matter how easily one is able to swallow the ascendancy of the digital over the analog, the transition threatens to dramatically decrease access to the vast majority of films made over the course of the last century. Given the dauntingly large expense of making a high-quality digital master of a particular film, many titles won’t make the leap. And with studios and archives increasingly loathe to loan their prints, this seems destined to mean that, for all the ease and perfection of digital projection, countless films will never see the light of a DCP.
Another of the questions we’ve posed to our contributors is how conscious they believe general audiences are of the difference between film and digital projection. But perhaps more important than an awareness of the difference in visual quality and texture is an awareness of the practical consequences of the transition from one format to the other. The industry has largely succeeded in fostering the impression that digital projection is inherently superior to the outdated technology of photochemical film prints—they’ve worked to ensure that to many, “digital” suggests clarity, brightness, and perfection, while “film” brings to mind scratches, dirt, splices, and drifting focus. Even if you subscribe to this notion, it’s critically important to raise awareness that the shift to digital entails transferring classic films to an entirely new medium, a process that, to be done right, is expensive, labor intensive, and which demands great sensitivity and craft. While certain films have and will continue to receive deluxe treatment, with arguably very impressive results, countless others are likely to lose a great deal in translation, or to never make the transition at all. It is to raise awareness of all these dimensions of the transition from film to digital projection that we have organized our Critical Symposium.—Jared Rapfogel
We posed the following questions to our contributors:
1) How would you characterize the losses involved in the transition away from the exhibition of traditional film prints, especially with regard to the digital projection of works originally shot on film? The benefits?
2) How conscious do you think the average viewer is of the difference between film and digital projection? Do you think this awareness is important? And, if so, what can be done to foster it?
3) What’s your attitude toward the idea that focusing on the particular qualities of 35mm and 16mm film projection amounts to a kind of fetishism? Are there dangers on both ends of the spectrum?
4) Given the enormous costs of upgrading to digital projection, is there any way to avoid losing hundreds or thousands of smaller cinemas? And, if not, how will this affect film culture?
5) Will more than a small fraction of film history be treated to the deluxe digital restoration treatment? How great is the likelihood that many films will not make the leap and will be effectively lost? And for those that are transferred to digital, will the transfers tend to be overseen by technicians with a genuine sensitivity to the qualities of the originals?
6) If there are any issues or consequences resulting from the transition to digital exhibition that you feel have not been touched upon by the questions above, please feel free to identify or address them with further comments.
To read our particpants' responses, click here so that you may order either a subscription to begin with our Fall 2012 issue, or a sample copy of the issue.