When Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar arrives in theaters in early November, it will do so as the rare big budget movie that was both shot on film and meant to be exhibited on film. In an industry that has gone almost entirely digital — 94 percent of the country’s movie screens now use digital projection — Interstellar stands apart. Not only did Nolan use analog cameras to capture much of the movie, but he also convinced Paramount to distribute it, at least in part, on the clunky, expensive film reels studios have spent the past 20 years trying to kill.
Nolan is an outspoken film supporter who has said it is the responsibility of anyone “with the resources and the power to insist [on] film,” to do so. Along with a handful of other directors, that’s just what Nolan has done. Like a Justice League of filmmakers, Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Judd Apatow, and Quentin Tarantino are leading the charge to save 35mm film.
Christopher Nolan’s fall movie ‘Interstellar’ was shot on film
According to the Wall Street Journal, those four directors are largely responsible for a deal this summer between Hollywood’s major studios and Kodak that will keep the imaging company churning out 35mm film. Without Kodak, film would be virtually impossible to find. Now, 35mm has a chance to enter its vinyl age, with devoted filmmakers shooting on stock and faithful projectionists continuing to run the reels.
While the deal may be curious to moviegoers who’ve long since accepted digital technology in movie theaters, anyone watching the rise of digital will know that there’s always been a strong allegiance to film stock among Hollywood’s creative class. “Film itself sets the standard for quality,” Abrams told the WSJ in explaining his preference. “You can talk about range, light-sensitive, resolution — there’s something about film that is undeniably beautiful, undeniably organic and natural and real.” Apatow agreed, telling the WSJ, “There’s a magic to the grain and the color quality that you get with film.” Nolan’s argument in favor of film is more practical. “I’m a fan of any technological innovation, but for me, it’s going to have to exceed what came before — and it hasn’t yet,” he said earlier this year at CinemaCon. Tarantino, who’s said he “can’t stand all this digital stuff,” doesn’t just prefer film when it comes to production. He’d also like to watch all movies on film. “As far as I’m concerned, digital projection…is the death of cinema as I know it,” he said at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
It makes sense that directors would be the ones rushing to save film: They were never angling to evolve past it. While some notable filmmakers such as George Lucas, Robert Rodriguez, and James Cameron were early digital enthusiasts, the major push came from studios. “Distribution is the only consistently profitable area,” producer and former Universal Pictures head Tom Pollock told Variety in 2010. “That’s why distributing movies digitally into theaters has been the holy grail of the studios.” The quest for that holy grail can be traced back to an Anaheim screening room in 1992 where a digital file of Warren Beatty’s Bugsy was projected to a crowd eager to see the future of cinema. Reports indicate the results were lacking. Sent from Sony’s studio in Culver City through fiber optic cables, the video was half the resolution of standard 35mm film.
Seven years later, digital projection was ready for its moment. In the summer of 1999, four screens — two in New York and two in L.A.— projected digital versions Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. Crowds reportedly loved the results (if not, ultimately, the movie) and over the next decade, digital projection began creeping into theaters. By 2007, digital conversations became less a matter of preference than necessity. At the time, the L.A. Times attributed the steep jump in digital screens — from 1,700 to 4,000 in a year — to fierce competition for people’s attention with the many other screens in their lives, like videogames and home computers.
Then in 2009, Avatar cemented digital’s position. Anticipating the success of James Cameron’s magnum opus, theater owners scrambled to install digital 3D screens before the Christmas release. More than $2.5 billion later, Avatar proved digital was the way forward. In 2010, 32 percent of the world’s movie screens were showing films on digital projectors. By January 2012, digital projection surpassed film in terms of market share and by the end of 2015 a scant 17 percent of theaters worldwide are expected to show movies on film.
One of the main motivations for the rapid change was, predictably, money. The cost of distributing film on hard drives is miniscule. Studios can spend between $1,500 and $2,500 to strike and ship each copy of a movie. With today’s biggest movies opening in 4,200 theaters, that’s as much as $10.5 million just to get a print from a studio to theaters. Compare that with the $150 to $650 studios spend on hard drives, and it’s easy to see why they’ve demanded digital projection.
Outside boardrooms, the reaction to the switch has been more muted, especially in the many theaters across the country faced with the reality of "convert or die," as the president the National Theater Owners of America (NATO) has put it. By now, most have converted, and the dire predictions of thousands of shuttered cinemas have not come true. “It’s been remarkable how little attrition there’s been,” NATO spokesperson Patrick Corcoran tells Yahoo Movies. Still, the change has hit some small theater owners hard. Despite the studios kicking back some of their savings, many independently owned theaters simply can’t afford the $70,000 or so it costs to upgrade each screen. “We would have had to upgrade it to digital, and it just didn’t pencil right,” theater owner Bobby Gran, Jr. told the Lompoc Record upon the closing of his family’s small town California theater last year. Many theater owners have turned to crowdfunding to raise the money needed for the conversion. The Cinema Theater in Rochester, New York, is in the process of raising money for a digital conversation, which its IndieGoGo page says is the only way to keep the 100-year-old theater running.
A select few theater owners are keeping their 35mm film projectors on principle. “There are some who are very much purists about 35mm,” Corcoran says. But if they intend to hold on, their business models may have to change: Aside from exceptions like Interstellar, Paramount has ended 35mm distribution and others are expected to follow. A filmmaker and archivist at the New York Public Library, Elena Rossi-Snook does not look forward to that day. “I seek out those theaters that have film projection. I don’t care if the film is scratched,” she told Yahoo Movies. “There are all of these very discreet experiences and processes going when you watch cinema.” Rossi-Snook however, is in the minority Corcoran says: “To the average patron, it doesn’t matter.”
At this point, debates about the merits of digital versus film are intellectual. Digital has won. And the effects of that range far beyond your local cinema’s projection booth. Without studios ordering all that film to distribute to theaters, manufacturing it has become less economically viable for companies like Kodak and FujiFilm, which stopped producing motion picture film in 2012. And shooting on film is getting even more impractical as digital cameras improve and become more affordable. “I never celebrated the fact that film is going away,” cinematographer James Mathers, the president of the Digital Cinema Society, tells Yahoo Movies. “I just felt like I have to evolve or I’m going to get left in the dust.” Mathers admits that he would like to shoot more film, but the scarcity of the jobs and film stock is turning 35mm filmmaking into a “boutique business.” That leaves high profile Hollywood directors with deep pockets among the few who can actually afford to shoot on film. And it’s clear by their mission to rescue Kodak, that some plan to do just that.
Director Martin Scorsese released a statement after the Kodak deal. “In the history of motion pictures, only a minuscule percentage of the works comprising our art form was not shot on film. Everything we do in HD is an effort to recreate the look of film,” he wrote. “This news is a positive step towards preserving film, the art form we love.” That type of romance and emotion is common when many directors discuss their attachment to film. Tarantino calls it “magic.” Others might call it simple nostalgia. Whatever it is that has some of Hollywood’s biggest directors so enamored, it’s enough to keep film alive, for at least a little while longer.
Watch Martin Scorsese and James Cameron talk about film versus digital with Keanu Reeves who directed the documentary Side by Side
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