That “films” will soon no longer be printed on film is not really news, but that day is finally here. When Paramount Pictures released its first major movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, entirely on digital in the U.S. Anchor-man II was its last movie printed on 35mm film for distribution in the U.S. Paramount Pictures celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, and 35mm film has been the standard for all of that period. 20th Century-Fox and Disney will soon follow with all-digital distribution.
Movie theatres have been converting to 4k digital projectors for two or three years now, which cost from $60,000 to $150,000. The “films” arrive to them mailed as hard drives in cases, and in the near future will arrive over high-speed downloads. But according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, some 4126 theatre screens are still projecting film and most of these theatres probably can’t afford digital projectors.
With the studios using less and less film stock, film processors are hurting. The maker of unprocessed film, Eastman Kodak, has already filed for bankruptcy. Technicolor and Deluxe, rivals for decades in the processing of colour film, finally decided to call a truce and divide up the remaining business between them. Recently Technicolor closed its processing lab in Glendale, California.
Digital filming has split many directors into two camps. James Cameron was a pioneer with Avatar. And films like The Hobbit and Life of Pi relied on digital cameras. But film preservation advocate Martin Scorsese shot Hugo digitally. Christopher Nolan who directed The Dark Knight Rises, gathered many directors together to make a plea to save 35mm film. Quentin Tarantino says “…can’t stand digital. I hate that stuff.” And David O. Russell said, “Maybe I’m old fashioned, maybe I’m superstitious, maybe I’m romantic – I love film and it has a magic quality, it has warmth.”
The benefits of digital to the studios are financial. A film print costs about $2000, a digital disk less than $100. Not to mention the difference in shipping costs. A 90 minute movie is usually over 8,000 feet of film. If you’ve ever looked through developed film stock, it’s amazing how many frames it takes to advance a scene. Modern reels of film come in 2000 ft. lengths, so that’s almost nine reels of film per movie, and many movies last longer than 90 minutes.
And on the shooting end of digital, you no longer have to stop “filming” to reload film magazines, you just keep on shooting. Only now the actors don’t get so many beaks. Let’s look back in time at film and how it was handled. In the old theatre projection rooms, two projectors would be used so that when one projector ran out of its film the other carried on projecting the same movie. The rooms also had a place to splice films (at right) in case the film broke. In the heyday of the studio system, where everything was done under the studio roof, film processing was an important part of the “factory.” In the 1930s when the photos below were taken at MGM, all the film was developed at the studio and shipped out across the country and across the world.
The industrial-looking machine above was used to develop film. The vats below contained developing and washing solutions, through which film looped continuously, going through one vat after the other until the film was developed. You can see the progression from left to right. In the photo below taken at MGM in the 1930s, rows of men work in the automatic film printing room. Release prints for the movie theatres were made there at the rate of four million feet per week. Film editing was not high-tech in the 1930s. Chester Schaefer at MGM edits and assembles a film prior to its screening and release. Digitizing older film for preservation is one of the benefits of digital technology. In a recent study by the Library of Congress, it found that of the 11,000 silent films that were produced by the American movie industry between 1912 and 1929, only 14% (1,575) survive today in their original release condition, while another 11% survive in various imperfect formats.
The irony is that while digitizing film stock is a favoured method used for the preservation of film, its long term life is an unknown. Film archivist David Pierce, who conducted the Library of Congress study, stated that, “Maintained under proper conditions – e.g... Cool, dry, vaults – film reels can last for hundreds of years. That kind of longevity has not been proven for digital copies yet.”
Digital format obsolescence is another issue, resulting in the continual need for digital content migration to new platforms and software. Digital creation is cheaper, but digital storage is, in the long run, more expensive.