Over at LAWeekly.com, there was recently an article by Gendy Allimurung about how the major movie studios are forcing filmmakers to switch from 35mm film to digital distribution. The reasons for doing this are purely economical. It costs a studio one-tenth as much ($150 vs. $1500 per screen) to send their movies out digitally instead of printing on celluloid as they have for the last hundred years or so. Faced with falling revenue, who can blame them for trying to cut expenses wherever possible? Also, while shooting digitally has certain advantages for the filmmaker as well, it is not without criticism, and not just from celluloid purists. There’s an argument to be made that shooting digitally is causing newer filmmakers to become more sloppy and careless with their craft. The disadvantages of moving completely away from film are not trivial, as Allimurung rightly points out.
First and most worrisome for me is that it will most likely result in the loss of smaller, art house theaters. Studios are increasingly loathe to distribute film prints at all, and new digital projectors cost between $70,000 and $150,000 apiece. Unable to afford the capital outlay for new equipment and with studios increasingly unwilling to release film prints as they had in the past, even of classics, small, locally-owned theaters are caught in an untenable situation. I especially worry about the sustainability of my beloved Moxie Cinema here in Springfield. We Southwest Missourians don’t have a lot of culture to choose from to begin with, and losing our sole independent movie house would be tragic indeed.
It is also not clear whether digital distribution really saves money overall or whether it just shifts those costs down the chain to the theaters. For example, in order to prevent damage to their new, expensive digital projectors, theaters must replace their Xenon bulbs three times more frequently at a cost of $600 a pop. There’s still no universal standard when it comes to a digital film format, and as we all know, computer files are not immune from being corrupted. There’s a horrifying story in the article about how Toy Story 2 was almost lost in its entirety by an errant keystroke and lack of proper backup.
I’m not the kind of person who hates every new technology that comes down the pike. I jumped on CDs when they first came out, and though I never owned a Laserdisc player, I did have a DVD player early on, and regularly stream movies online now. I like watching movies on film for the same reason I still have a record player and listen to vinyl. Not for some hipster-ish sense of superiority, but rather, because it’s how I came up as a fan. The music of the seventies and eighties will always sound better to me when played on vinyl, and movies will always have more impact when projected in a theater through celluloid.
I have no doubt that digital is here to stay. It does provide a perfectly serviceable picture for the majority of movies these days, and maybe the cost savings will mean I don’t have to pay ten bucks for a ticket anymore. Still, my hope is that 35mm film will continue to be used by students, as it provides a better medium for teaching, and by professional filmmakers who want to create truly great art, not just the latest commercial dreck from the likes of Michael Bay and Adam Sandler. Let them shoot away on digital all they like. The rabble at the multiplex won’t care. As for me, I’ll be downtown at the Moxie, watching the latest by Darren Aronofsky or Terrence Malick, the soft ticking of a 35mm film projector over my shoulder and a bag of popcorn in hand.