Imagine if everyone stopped filming on celluloid tomorrow and the entire world of cinema went full-on digital. Production and employment of 35mm film ceased full-stop and IMAX’s 65mm format vanished into thin air. What would that be like? How would that affect dollars and cents, the financial side of the industry? How would that impact the creative side, the domain of the filmmakers, cinematographers, editors, visual FX directors, and more? How much would film as both a business and as an art form actually change overnight?
Anyone who has ever asked these questions before– either privately or publicly– wants to head over to this article at LA Weekly, which I noticed over at the great movie/TV/general media and cultural resource Badass Digest, and dig in. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be shocked at some of the things that you read; if you’re even more like me you’re probably prone to be reactionary over the whole thing, rather than thoughtful. I admit that the day after I read both Badass’s piece as well as the full LA Weekly piece, I wanted to throw together a post right away– but wisdom prevailed over panic-stricken alarmist sensibilities, and so here I am today.
The short version of what’s summed up in the article (since my intention isn’t to wholly regurgitate all six pages of it here): studios and filmmakers are, and have been for years, duking it out over movie formats. Filmmakers, for reasons pertaining to aesthetics among others, want to stick with celluloid; studios, who count cash drawers opening and closing before they go to sleep at night, want to go with digital. It makes sense, given that even filmmakers have to answer to a bottom line. Digital is cheaper to print and distribute, so much so that the disparity in cost between film and digital may rank in the billions. The good news is that in the battle on the production end, studios haven’t gained significant ground.
They have, however, pulled into the lead on the projection end. And this is worrisome:
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.
What exactly does that mean, though?
Much and more. The increase proliferation of digital over film means, among other things, that projectionists will become obsolete as the need for people with their skills decreases, that the yardstick by which we measure great filmmaking technique may alter for the worse, and that– maybe most importantly– film preservation itself may wind up going digital as well. I don’t think this means that digital is the devil, though; there are obvious benefits to shooting on digital that the article even touches on. But I do think it means that there’s a huge discussion that needs to be had over the benefits and the dangers of eliminating film as an option in both shooting and projecting movies. Do you forsake digital entirely? Or film? Or do you find a way to balance out both of them in every realm of filmmaking?
What do you think? Is digital a harbinger of doom for cinema? Are purists overreacting? Is there a middle ground here at all, or can we only choose sides to be involved in the debate? (For my money– like Devin at Badass Digest, I’m pretty concerned with how going digital affects film preservation. But I’m willing to synthesize digital storing as part of the film preservation process, if there’s an elegant, safe way to do so.)