I just listened to a discussion about the death of film on the latest /Filmcast episode. I think the discussion was well-reasoned, and I liked that the guys didn’t take the luddite approach that I feel Scott Tobias mostly advocates. There is a place for nostalgia, but it’s not like we make movies with hand-cranked cameras for that beautiful variable frame rate and flicker anymore. Technology improves and changes and artists change and adapt to keep up.
There is one area that I think they did sort of gloss over, and which I think wasn’t perfectly expressed in the otherwise great LA Weekly article that set off the discussion, and that’s that this whole conversion to digital is being forced by studios for reasons of cost savings, but also sheer laziness. Digital filming and projection is the kind of change that needs to happen, but it can’t be pushed so forcefully before it’s 100% ready. While this conversion is the biggest the industry has seen since the advent of colour, colour film didn’t need brand new projectors and screens and server systems to run. But why would the studios care? The end cost generally falls on exhibitors. The studios give up very little.
And on the exhibitor side, there’s another problem I see, and it’s one that began back in the 70s when platter systems took hold. Those are the systems which allow all the reels of a film to be spliced together and placed on a platter to run through a single projector. All of a sudden cinemas could have tons of screens, often run by just one projectionist. It’s cost-saving, to be sure, but it also promotes laziness in presentation quality. Digital has only increased this. The number of times I’ve gone to see a digital movie and had the matting curtains stay open, or the times I’ve seen a film that’s 1.85:1 ratio cropped to 2.35:1 is alarming. I go to complain and the manager, who also runs the digital system, says it can’t be fixed without restarting the show. Or worse, the manager has no clue what I’m talking about when I say “matte curtains” or “aspect ratio”. This kind of laziness is a problem. Sure, the picture quality may technically be perfect, but the ease of use also makes the people running things not care too much about the actual presentation, and the quality of presentation should be the main selling point for these things. Instead it’s a “set it and forget it” attitude.
Or take for instance the Coliseum theatre just outside Toronto. It has one of those giant 15/70mm IMAX screens. Recently the projector on that huge screen was changed out for a digital IMAX projector. The reason? The directive from management was that they no longer wanted a team of projectionists for the theatre and so all screens, including IMAX, had to be changed to digital, a serious drop in quality, particularly on a screen that size.
Preservation is the biggest area where laziness is a problem. Hollywood has been notoriously lazy about storing and preserving films, and there’s no reason to expect a change in that. Back when silents and early colour films were shot on volatile nitrate stock, studios just didn’t care to be safe and so they often destroyed films rather than preserve them. Newer print stock made things easier, but studios hardly paid attention to their vaults. The only thing that has given them reason to preserve has been the home video market, but even in that case there are horror stories about films that had 2K scans done back in the early 2000s where the studios nearly had the original film prints destroyed in favour of the subpar digital copy. On the /Filmcast, Devindra pointed out that having huge vaults under salt mines doesn’t sound all that safe for storing film stocks, and while that’s somewhat true, the effort it takes to make sure that those negatives are safe is relatively minimal and quite passive. Storing and maintaining digital prints is an active process and it will always be an active process. Does anybody really believe that studios can be trusted to do this?
And nevermind their obvious laziness, there’s also the ways that the studios lie about it. A couple years back Universal released Back to the Future on Blu-ray. They promoted the release quite heavily and even did public screenings of the new “restored” digital print. As it turns out, the film was not restored at all. This is one of their best-selling and most beloved properties, and they couldn’t be bothered to go back and re-scan the original negative. Instead they took the 2K scan done with technology from 2000 for the 2002 DVD release and digitally spruced it up a little. For the sequels they didn’t even bother sprucing up, instead choosing to slather awful Digital Noise Reduction over the image. No actual restoration was done, but Universal pretends like it was. This leads the public to think that these films are well taken care of, when in fact the likelihood is that many films, even great and beloved ones like Back to the Future are languishing in vaults. It’s only a matter of time before those negatives are disposed of in favour of the digital prints, but the question becomes, what kind of quality and attention is given to make sure those digital scans are proper preservation material?
Devindra’s idea to have businessmen and filmmakers chip in to take care of this is nice, but naïve. Martin Scorsese runs an entire foundation dedicated to restoring and preserving films. He’s been responsible for saving tons of films, most notably The Red Shoes. But even The Film Foundation makes sure to always output back to 35mm and keep the original negatives as source. And there are thousands upon thousands of films out there. The cost of preserving them in digital form is expensive, but even ignoring that you have to take into account the high cost of making preservation-grade digital scans in 4K and up to 8K resolutions. This work is extremely expensive, and if Universal couldn’t be bothered to spare the expense on a new scan of Back to the Future, what chance do a lot of the smaller and more obscure catalog titles have?
This conversion to digital is inevitable, but the thoughtless way in which studios and Hollywood are going about it is what scares me. Their history is one of laziness and only considering the bottom line of their companies. This doesn’t instill confidence in how films will be distributed, exhibited and preserved in the fast-approaching digital age. I think the LA Weekly article does a good job of highlighting this problem, but it too falls into the trap of nostalgia for film. It’s not the nostalgia that we should consider in the debate, it’s the fact that studios and exhibitors are notoriously lazy, and they’re pushing the conversion faster than necessary for dubious reasons like charging $3 extra for 3D or saving money on print production, and they’re doing it without proper concern for value film as a physical medium.