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Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling

Shortly before Christmas, director Edgar Wright received an email inviting him to a private screening of the first six minutes of Christopher Nolan’s new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. Walking into Universal CityWalk’s IMAX theater, Wright recognized many of the most prominent filmmakers in America — Michael Bay, Bryan Singer, Jon Favreau, Eli Roth, Duncan Jones, Stephen Daldry. If a bomb had gone off in the building, he thought, it would have taken out half of the Directors Guild of America.


“It was a surreal experience because it felt like we were all going to get whacked,” Wright recalls.


As the directors settled into their seats, Nolan addressed them with words ripped from the plot of an old Batman serial.


“I have an ulterior motive for bringing you here,” the British director announced.


And then he made a plea for 35mm film.


Nolan pointed out that The Dark Knight Rises was made on celluloid. That he is committed to shooting on film, and wants to continue doing so. But, he warned, 35mm will be stamped out by the studios unless people — people like them — insist otherwise.


There is a war raging in Hollywood: a war between formats. In one corner, standing with Nolan, are defenders of 35mm film. Elegant in its economy, for more than 100 years film has been the dominant medium with which movies are shot, edited and viewed.


In the other corner are backers of digital technology — a cheaper, faster, democratizing medium, a boon to both creator and distributor.


A few months later, Nolan steps out of the editing bay to discuss his purpose on that December evening. He says he wanted to remind his fellow filmmakers what photochemical film can do. It is too easy to forget the beauty and power of 35mm.


“The danger comes from filmmakers not asserting their right to choose that format,” Nolan says. “If they stop exercising that choice, it will go away. I tell people, ‘Look, digital isn’t going away.’ ”


It certainly isn’t. James Cameron’s Avatar got the ball rolling back in 2009. The 3-D blockbuster could only be shown via digital projectors, and so the first wave of theaters upgraded in a hurry.


Today, the driving force isn’t so much a single movie as it is the studios’ bottom line — they no longer want to pay to physically print and ship movies. It costs about $1,500 to print one copy of a movie on 35 mm film and ship it to theaters in its heavy metal canister. Multiply that by 4,000 copies — one for each movie on each screen in each multiplex around the country — and the numbers start to get ugly. By comparison, putting out a digital copy costs a mere $150.


“Distributing movies digitally into theaters has been the holy grail of the studios,” former Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock told Variety back in 2010. “They stand to eliminate billions of dollars in costs in coming years without spending very much.”


In 2012, it seems, the grail is finally within the studios’ grasp. Fate hasn’t yet been sealed on the image-capture end, as directors like Nolan dig their heels in about aesthetics and continue to insist on shooting on film. But even a motion picture shot entirely on film can be converted to digital after the fact. And on the projection side, digital is winning.


This year, for the first time in history, celluloid ceases to be the world’s prevailing movie-projector technology. By the end of 2012, according to IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service, the majority of theaters will be showing movies digitally. 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 repercussions will be vast — and felt down the entire length of the movie-industry food chain.


Upgrade or Die


Hadrian Belove wanted to show Breakfast at Tiffany’s for Valentine’s Day. As executive director of the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre in West Hollywood, he’s used to working with studios to borrow prints of rare or classic films.


But this year it proved trickier. Studios are pushing a new format. And Belove’s cinema — a nonprofit collective of cinephiles dedicated to presenting “weird and wonderful” movies — hasn’t made the upgrade.


The new format is called a DCP, or Digital Cinema Package. It is a virtual format, a collection of files stored on a hard drive. Roughly the size of a paperback novel, the hard drive is mailed in a lightweight, foam-lined plastic case to the theater, where it’s inserted (or, in the lingo, “ingested”) into a server that runs the digital projector. DCPs won’t run on traditional film projectors, however. So if they want to play the new format, theater owners must update their equipment.


For this privilege, exhibitors can expect to shell out from $70,000 to $150,000 per screen. Because the studios will save so much money on shipping costs, they’ve agreed to help finance the conversion. For the next 10 years, they will pay theater owners a “virtual-print fee” for each new release shown digitally.


To speed the conversions along, the studios are using a classic carrot-and-stick model of coercion. The offset money is the carrot. The punishing stick? Studios will no longer be releasing 35 mm prints.


It’s not so bad for first-run theater chains, which play only new releases. Art-house and repertory theaters, however, which play classic and older movies, are largely dependent on print loans from studios. Increasingly, the prints are remaining locked in studio vaults. Last November, 20th Century Fox sent its exhibitors a letter to that effect: “The date is fast approaching when 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight will adopt the digital format as the only format in which it will theatrically distribute its films. … We strongly advise those exhibitors that have not yet done so to take immediate steps to convert their theaters to digital projection systems.”


John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, drove the point home at the association’s annual convention last year in Las Vegas. “Simply put,” he said, “If you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.”


Belove, of Cinefamily, believes many theaters will choose just that.


“Hundreds of art houses will go out of business,” he says. “Already some theaters are shoving under.”


Belove recently returned from a conference of art-house theater owners. Most of the attendees were operating on annual budgets of less than $500,000. Upgrading on that budget is prohibitively expensive.


“The pressure’s on me,” he says. “I know I’m going to be forced to do a major outlay.”


But the alternative also is lousy. Already there are films he couldn’t show for lack of a DCP-compliant projector. He couldn’t get a print of A New Leaf from Paramount for an Elaine May retrospective he wanted to do. Ditto for Saul Bass’ Phase IV for a Bass retrospective, and Andrzej Zulawski’s The Important Thing Is to Love for a Zulawski retrospective. Studio Canal in France would supply only a DCP.


“This is classic cinematheque stuff,” Belove says with frustration.


And then there was Valentine’s Day. Instead of a 35mm print, the studio offered Belove either a DCP or a DVD of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.


While Cinefamily couldn’t show the DCP version without a costly upgrade, it could choose to show a DVD or Blu-ray. Blown up on the big screen, however, a relatively low-resolution DVD looks, in Belove’s opinion, terrible.


“We can look at a DVD right now,” he says, walking into the darkened auditorium. On the screen, a trailer is playing. A man and a woman are having sex. “See how the blacks aren’t black?” Belove whispers. “That’s DVD. Look at the textures. Look at his jacket. Look at his face. You can’t see a lot of detail.”


After the trailer, the feature begins. “OK,” he says, “now it’s film. See how much blacker the black is?”


Stepping outside, Belove lights a cigarette and runs a hand through his hair. “Why would I charge people for a format they could see at home?”


For Valentine’s Day, he passed on a DVD of the Audrey Hepburn vehicle and played a 35mm print of F.W. Murnau’s melodrama Sunrise instead.


While the push to digital and corresponding clampdown on prints make sense to studio bean counters, it is madness for independent theaters. At best, it forces repertory programming to become dull. DCPs are only available for film’s “greatest hits,” not for the obscure gems people expect from independent theaters.


At worst, it takes away the flexibility that small organizations need if they are to survive. The studios’ “virtual-print fee” contracts come with restrictions on which films a theater can show, and when. The exact terms vary. But since exhibitors are required to sign nondisclosure agreements, they can’t compare deals.


And the clock is ticking: There is a time limit on the studios’ offer to help pay for new equipment. Belove has until fall 2012 to decide whether to upgrade. After that, the virtual-print fee offer expires and he’ll have to pay full price. He shrugs. “They’ve got much bigger fish to fry,” he says of the studios. “There’s no reason for them to care if 500 little theaters … “


His voice trails off. “I mean, I don’t see a solution to it. It’s going to take a major movement.”


One employee at the New Beverly Cinema on Beverly Boulevard hopes to inspire just such a movement. Julia Marchese started her online petition “Fight for 35mm” last November. Within hours, a thousand people had signed. By February, she’d collected more than 10,000 signatures.


“It started out as a way for me to say to the studios, please just keep prints available,” she says.


The signatories include individuals from more than 60 countries: cinema owners, actors, directors, students, professors, patrons, cinematographers, editors, producers. Some told stories. One young theater manager in rural Minnesota lacks the funds to upgrade and wrote that he worries his small theater will have to shut down, leaving people in a 20-mile radius with nowhere to go to watch movies.


Some protested the entire notion of digital. “Digital is vaporware, imaginary, all zeros and ones,” wrote one person from Indiana.


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