The Flick at Steppenwolf. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
In 2012, when I was between gigs, I picked up a few shifts a week as a projectionist at a struggling movie theater, among the last in the city that had yet to convert to digital projection. It wasn’t an act of principled resistance or anything—the management was just too undercapitalized to acquiesce. I always got paid in cash at the end of the night—often in the manager’s office, in the dark, with the hours calculated in a hurried whisper. Never before had I held down a job that felt so unashamedly transactional.
The projection booth was grotty from years of neglect. Posters from the early ’90s covered up the stains on the wall. When I started there, the work room didn’t have a real rewind bench. The booth port holes didn’t even have any glass, but the auditorium was so large that no one would’ve heard anything up there anyway, unless a projector fell over.
And then one day, enough money had been miraculously borrowed from banks and scrounged up from couch cushions to buy a digital projector. The projectionists had a few weeks’ warning, but we were never explicitly told we’d be out of a job. I offered to help the manager set it all up, but he told me he’d be fine. Even though he was more a businessman than a cinephile, the manager wasn’t quite ready to let 35mm go. We’d still be running film for some shows and digital for others during the first week, so the projectionists kept their shifts.
I showed up for work on a Friday night, hours after the digital projector had been installed. I peeked inside the theater and saw a meager audience enjoying a Blu-ray screening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I found the manager at the concession stand and asked how the afternoon had gone.
“Great,” he beamed, “there’s a movie running right now and no projectionist upstairs!” Continue reading
Let Us Compare Mythologies
You’ve probably heard by now that the ongoing digital cinema conversion has fundamentally transformed the way movies are produced, distributed, and exhibited. Taken on their own, petitions and protests that aim to save 35mm film can look nostalgic, naïve, or simply Luddite. With 92% of American screens already film-free, this looks like a settled issue, with no outstanding questions.
The scene looks different at a farther remove. Cinema is hardly the only industry in the midst of a digital transition, after all, and comparative analysis promises fresh insight.
Let’s talk about the parallel upheaval in voting technology for a moment. In the wake of the Florida’s extraordinarily close vote totals in the 2000 presidential election, America focused anew on problems at the polling place. Poor ballot design, antiquated punch cards, obsolete lever machines—all came under post-mortem scrutiny. The technology was an incongruous, even dangerous, anachronism for the dot com economy. “In the age of the microchip,” CBS News opined, “the leadership of the free world is being decided by boxes of paper ballots with hanging and half-punched “chads,” leaving it to harried election officials to decide who meant to vote for whom.” In California, the ACLU cited the scattered usage of the much-maligned Votomatic machine as an impediment to equal protection guarantees and sued to delay a state-wide election until all the machines could be replaced. Continue reading
No sooner had this blog observed that film’s death watch was leveling off than the Los Angeles Times delivered a bombshell: Paramount Pictures was the first of the big studios to drop 35mm, with Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues being its last title released on film. Henceforth, all Paramount titles would be DCP only, beginning with The Wolf of Wall Street. (How ironic that, in one of Wolf’s best scenes, Leonardo DiCaprio teaches his charges how to scam small-time investors by selling them shares of Kodak before moving on to worthless penny stocks.)
Richard Verrier’s Times piece was thinly sourced, with the studio refusing to comment and the “theater industry executives” who leaked the news remaining anonymous. The article included no quotes from the memo itself, nor any indication of how many people received it. In some ways, this is old news. Anchorman 2 was released a month ago, and the gist of the Paramount memo was circulating on specialist message boards like film-tech.com back in November. At least one forum member cited a Wolf booking at a 35mm venue, but the balance of the evidence suggests that the phantom memo is, in fact, true. Continue reading
Global Recession Saves 35mm
Tradition dictates that this blog publish an end-of-year overview looking back on distribution trends and chronicling the fate of film exhibition. Compared to the past two years, we saw fewer signal events in 2013—no headline-grabbing bankruptcies, less saber-rattling ‘do it or die’ announcements from the studios, fewer (or, at least, less hysterical) media stories chronicling the fate of struggling, straggling mom ‘n’ pop operations. Generally speaking, 2013 was the year that digital cinema became so normalized as to be unremarkable.
With the wide-scale digital conversion of first-run movie exhibition accepted as a fait accompli, the belligerence and defiance have cooled considerably. Back in 2011, studios strongly suggested that 35mm prints would be unavailable after 2013. The message was clear: gobble up the carrot of 3D surcharges and labor-saving automation now, before we bring out the stick of absolutely refusing to accommodate your out-moded film equipment. This warning did its job: by the end of 2013, so many theaters had converted that threats as such were less necessary. The threats were also less credible: Kodak, newly emerged from bankruptcy, reports that the studios have contracted for raw film stock through at least 2015. Continue reading
Last year we presented a two-part analysis of trends and achievements from the preceding twelve months of cinema. Here’s this year’s edition. — Ed.
Nothing But a Man, the independent feature from 1964 about apartheid conditions in the American South, plays in a new print at the Gene Siskel Film Center this weekend. It’s worth seeing for many reasons, but let’s focus on one detail. It opens with a peculiar credit, made no less disconcerting by the intervening five decades; instead of announcing itself as the product of a film studio, television station, or the star’s vanity label, Nothing But a Man cites the DuArt Film Laboratories as its putative producer.
This is, of course, literally true—DuArt developed the latent image recorded on the original camera rolls and then struck intermediate elements that facilitated the release prints distributed to theaters. In the most industrial sense, they produced the object to be consumed. (Amy Taubin suggests a less totalizing explanation in Artforum: Irvin Young, brother of Nothing But a Man producer/cinematographer/co-writer Robert M. Young, ran DuArt and probably offered free or steeply discounted lab services to the shoestring production.) Continue reading
Sometimes even I wish that the digital conversion would just hurry itself up, if only so that we could forever forsake the journalistic convention of punning on matters of real and reel. You know, or could make up, the headlines: Professor examines reel history, Local woman finds reel love, Reel inflation fears send real a-reeling.
What this ubiquitous usage tends to do is lay down a bright line between movies and everything else, as if even eight-figure corporate deals are a bit precious and fantastic because they touch the movie business. (If only I could quit my real job and get a reel one…) We’re still living in the dream factory, even when those dreams are increasingly violent and downbeat.
A generation from now, the reel might lose its currency as an imaginative symbol. Right now, though, it still stands in for the broader idea of the movies: look no further than the logos of your local film festival, film commission, or indie video store. All this despite the fact that most people have never handled a reel of film. Walk around a theater lobby with a 16mm Castle Film before the show and see just how many people think you hold an entire feature in the palm of your hand. More realistically, a two-hour feature would encompass six or seven 35mm reels about 14 inches in diameter apiece. Continue reading
Posted in Blog
Tagged 35mm, DCP, Editorials
You might get the impression from the films we program at the Northwest Chicago Film Society that we aren’t especially interested in new cinema. Actually, though, we don’t show films from the 1930s to retreat into an uncomplicated past, to shut ourselves off from the present. If anything, we’re often interested in these films for the way they challenge our complacency about received history (of cinema and of society) and the trite frameworks that homogenize cultural experience.
To that end, we have a lot to say about this year’s movies, too.
Just what it meant to go to the movies in 2011 is hardly straight-forward. The irreversible shift from 35mm projection to wholly digital presentations continued apace, with digital penetration breaking fifty percent of American screens sometime in the first half of 2011. We have much to say about the digital conversion and its ideological implications elsewhere, but let’s focus on its most salient results. Continue reading
The emulsion is on the wall, so to speak.
Film is finished as a mainstream exhibition format after more than a century. Roger Ebert, a long-time video projection skeptic, proclaimed as much a little over a week ago.
One can see where he’s coming from. High-end digital projectors have overtaken 35mm in the multiplexes. Kodak shares briefly flirted with penny stock status. The only good news coming from the company lately was, ironically, the leasing of laser projection patents to IMAX, which will shortly replace its last remaining 70mm installations with digital machines.
As film’s share of the market shrinks, there will be increasing pressure to discontinue the format altogether. The studios would rather it had been discontinued yesterday.
At first glance, digital represents a clear cost-saving. No more laboratories, no more prints, no more warehouses, no more trucks—a frictionless distribution infrastructure without the grease and rust. The future is shiny: hard drives, servers, eventually satellite transmission without any physical medium whatsoever. The next time some fussy filmmaker is haggling over final cut a week before release, there won’t be any rush orders at Technicolor—4,000 prints by Wednesday. The newly conformed digital intermediate can be uploaded by supper. Continue reading