Like many cinema buffs, I’ve had very mixed feelings about the rapid decline of 35mm film as both a photographic capture and projection medium for motion pictures. As nostalgic as I may be for the experience of watching a pristine film print properly projected in a good theater, I’ll be the first to admit that, these days, digital projection is usually better, often significantly better, than film projection. Nonetheless, this transition is having the unfortunate side effect of claiming another victim. Can art house and repertory theaters survive without film?
Last year, all of the major manufacturers of motion picture cameras ceased production of new film cameras. More recently, Fuji announced that it would discontinue making film stock, while rival Eastman Kodak fights off bankruptcy. The end of film is fast approaching.
On the one hand, part of me wants to feel indignant about this. When done right, there’s a special luminous quality about light shining through a strip of film that digital projection still can’t quite replicate. Unfortunately, that experience is very rare. I can tell you precisely when I last saw a movie projected on film. Over the summer, I saw the indie comedy ‘Sleepwalk with Me‘ on 35mm. (I didn’t make a special point of seeing it on film; that just happened to be the way it was playing.) Having gotten used to pristine digital presentations, I was taken aback at just how awful the movie looked. The print was flat, washed out, had dull colors, and was positively wrecked with specks and scratches just a week into its run. My nostalgia for film pretty much died that day. While digital projection may be prone to its own share of issues, by and large, it’s far more consistent than film, especially in today’s cinema environment, where multiplexes are staffed exclusively with clueless teenagers who have no idea how to treat a film print or how to work a projector when something goes wrong.
Yet the disappearance of film is taking a serious toll on a valuable institution, the art house and repertory theater market. A recent article in The Atlantic describes how Martin Scorsese had trouble getting a print of his own 1993 movie ‘The Age of Innocence’ for a screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, because the studio that owns it (Sony) couldn’t find a lab to make a new print for it. Ultimately, Scorsese convinced the studio to supply him an archival print, but how many small theater programmers will have that kind of clout? With studios unable to strike new prints, and increasingly unwilling to loan out older prints for fear of damage, it’s becoming a choice of digital or nothing.
That’s a problem for a couple of reasons. First, many small or rural theaters can’t afford to upgrade to digital yet. Perhaps more importantly, the studios just plain don’t have DCP (Digital Cinema Package) copies of many of their library titles available, especially not for less popular or obscure movies. Even if a repertory theater is equipped for digital projection, it may not be able to get quality copies of the movies it wants to show. As this article in L.A. Weekly explains, many theaters are now forced to project from commercial home video copies on Blu-ray or even DVD, which are far from ideal (especially low-res DVD) on a large theater screen.
Are art house theaters doomed? Is there even still a place for such a thing in the age of home theater, where viewers can watch their favorite old movies on Blu-ray from the comfort of their own couches, without needing to go out to a cinema? I don’t know the answer to this, but I will certainly consider it a damn shame if the only things that ever play at movie theaters are the latest big-budget blockbusters and nothing else.