November 22, 2011


The landscape of film exhibition & distribution has changed dramatically over the past couple of years. Not only has the use of 3D been on the rise - both as a money making gimmick and as a story-telling device - but with it digital cinema projection (DCP). Cinemas have been phasing out/straight up replacing their 35mm projectors (and with them, their projection staff) and making the switch to digital. This has been happening over the course of years and digital projection has now reached the point where it is all but indistinguishable from film; even Roger Ebert can no longer tell the difference.

But hey, why the hell is "film" such a big deal? The short answer: it has to do with a) how a movie is shot and b) what it then looks like when projected. Film, as a recording medium, up until recently had a lot more versatility than digital options; film had wider ranges when it came to light and colour. You could often tell when a film had been shot on digital "stock" and you could often tell when you were watching a movie that was projected from a digital file rather than physical film. Film was still the superior medium - to both shoot and watch a movie in.

But not no more, no how.

Despite the admittedly superior experience of digital projection - crisper picture, no chance of reels playing in the wrong order, or the degrading quality of a physical film print - I am still a big fan of 35mm projection. Perhaps I am an analogue kinda guy, living in an increasingly digital world. Call me crazy, but I like knowing there's some sort of physical, tangible object involved in the world I'm watching unfold onscreen. I... you know what? I could go on and on about romantic, even nostalgic, thoughts around the use of film in a cinema. And these would be great thoughts, though ironically enough, rooted in the intangible. If we're talking quality, digital is at a point where it is superior.

Having said that, digital has it's distinct downsides. For one thing: history. Physical objects carry a history with them. With an old print, yes it may not be of the best quality, but you can tell merely by the scratches and missing frames that this is a film that has been enjoyed for years. You also just need to look at the on-going history of Metropolis. Fritz Lang's classic was originally released in 1927/8 in a much edited form and the original prints lost. Bits and pieces - film prints and part prints - were still being found as recently as 2008 and as far afield as Argentina and New Zealand! Metropolis - the final, definitive cut - is still being put together.

More common instances of this kind of history playing out include screenings of other classic films. There are people, collectors perhaps, who have vast archives of 35mm prints. Film prints that, if they had been sent back to the distributor/studio would have, in all likelihood, been destroyed. I just can't see the same sort of archival libraries happening with digital files. And that's a dangerous step towards a loss of history. Much talk is made of DCP being a boon to smaller, independent films - the requirement to send large canisters of film all over the world is gone, so there is a greater possibility of a distributor (or cinema) taking the chance with a film less guaranteed to bring in the punters. Frankly, my cynicism doesn't see that happening too often.

The majority of cinemas are moving to digital projection. It is inevitable and it makes sense for them - they're able to show 3D films, there are huge cost savings and they don't actually need a trained projectionist. All that needs to be done to start the show is for someone to push a button. It could be anyone - likely someone who hasn't the first idea about projection, lenses, sound or lighting. If something goes wrong, or if your film is projected incorrectly* - tough shit I guess. And y'know what? The majority of people won't notice. The vast majority of cinemagoers have even less of an idea about projection quality than the button-pushers. But that doesn't mean they should be served up an inferior product. And this is by far my biggest fear when it comes to digital projection - with no trained projectionist at the helm, quality control goes out the window and audiences (who were supposed to be lured in by the superior look of 3D and digital projection) eventually get turned off and go home to their Blu-Rays and HD televisions.

ike physical effects and stop motion giving way to CG, or painted posters stepping aside for photoshopped slap-togethers, I understand the inexorable "march of progress", even if I don't always like the results. But to do away with 35mm entirely (as is proposed by more than a few people - including the studios) seems like such a boneheaded, shortsighted move. There are still cinemas out there that profit by catering to repertory crowds (the New Beverly in LA is one of the more famous examples. They have an online petition I recommend you head along and sign here). Can I honestly see studios offering up their entire back-catalogues in digital format? No. No, I don't see that happening. They may digitise a batch of their classics, but that's it. There'll be so many more films we'll lose in the transfer and never have the chance to see in a cinema again. 

And a cinema is still, to me and many others, the best place to watch a movie. Nothing can beat that experience, and if you don't believe me then head over to BadAssDigest here and watch the video of Tarzan and Arab - filmmaking twins from the Gaza strip who had never seen a film in a cinema before. The power of cinema? Yer damn fuckin' right.

And, ultimately, whether they're projected on 35mm, 70mm or 4K DCP I'll still be watching them. And I'll still call them films.

*I will freely admit to being unsure as to what specific projection issues can crop up with DCP. Anybody want to shout out?


  1. In Wellington, 9 times out of 10 I'll find something wrong with the way a film's projected on 35mm. For this I blame:
    - lack of training
    - my previous career as a projectionist (I know what to look for)
    - a significant gap between maintenance budget needs and the amount actually spent
    - NZ getting second-run prints (already scratched when they arrived)
    - distributors not having replacement prints handy (if they are scratched, and there's no replacement, well the show must go on!)
    - and the worst of the worst: the theatre wasn't built right in the first place

    In comparison... a digital print has three possibilities for screw-up:
    - it's digitally locked and the distributor won't / can't unlock it in time for the screening
    - it's out of focus and you need to re-calibrate between sessions
    - the bulb's not bright enough.

    In nearly all cases, the digital theatre runs perfectly, while the 35mm is second-rate. So... while I'll take a 35mm print over a digital one any day, I'm more willing to part with my money if I'm sure I'll get an in-focus, un-scratched, print that fits the screen and is without awkward joins or aperture plates in the wrong place etc.

  2. Thanks Mr. Calloway! I suspected there wasn't too much that could go wrong with DCP, whereas there is oh so much that can with 35mm - I've seen films with the soundtrack playing alongside, have been involved in an incident where the film actually slid off the platter and have heard of films being played with the reels in the incorrect order and even a time when the print itself split in half.
    But for the problems that can occur with DCP - if there's no projectionist there to fix them... what then? I've already heard of incidents in the US at least where the lenses haven't been changed between 3D and 2D sessions, meaning even the 2D shows were darker (due to the polarizing lens required for 3D).
    Guess I'm just worried about the future of "the show".

  3. You're right, in that I have had 2 recent sessions in digital-only theatres cancelled on me "because of technical difficulties" (read: 'we blew one of the bulbs and you need two of them to make 3D work'... or, 'we forgot to book the session with the distributor, so we can't play the film').

    I think we'll just start seeing that more often. It's an 'all or nothing' mentality, hinged on service agreements with the projector's NZ branch...

  4. And that's what gets me too: those are both issues that really come down to quality control. You should really have a spare bulb or two around in case they blow (depending on how easy they are to change. Again, I'm not familiar with DCP projectors) and you should REALLY have it cleared with the distributor.

    Rassin' frassin'.