Inside Baseball: The Good News & Bad News About 35mm & Digital

AFS Programmer Lars Nilsen speaking here, from the heart, with a rousing brass band accompaniment:

We’ve been living in the “death of film” era for a while now – maybe around 15 years. So much so that I will confess to becoming a little weary of the discussion. I have been a film programmer for most of that time and an advisor for an archive so I have found myself in these discussions again and again. I’m sure I am not alone in my weariness but every time the subject comes up I feel that there are points that are left obscure and I get agitated again by the things that aren’t said.

It’s been my feeling recently that the backlash against celluloid-only militants has gained a lot of steam. I suspect that the majority of audience members, even of art houses and repertory theaters, are largely indifferent to format and those who might be induced to care are likely turned off by some of the militance – especially since most people in most cities don’t have access to film at all anymore. And in the cases where most of these folks can see film at all it is in pretty rough shape – as is probably the case by now with most of those INTERSTELLAR prints which were run by part-time, inexperienced projectionists – and which is the case with a lot of the repertory prints which are living out the remainder of their natural lives getting platter-scratched and mishandled by projectionists who have become button-pushers for the majority of their shifts and lack the fine touch and timing that characterizes the best pros.

The magic of film becomes harder to demonstrate when the prints that people see are in poorer and poorer condition and the great virtue of digital cinema (that it does not decay with multiple playings) may tend to make it more appealing to general audiences whose seminal moviegoing years are more and more likely every year to have been spent watching televisions or iPads – or iPhones.

Additionally, and we’re getting a little “inside baseball” here, the cost of replacing film prints is greater and greater now that the remaining film labs have become specialty facilities with fewer and more demanding clients. The first problem that this creates is that new prints are made less often. Some films, LA STRADA comes to mind, simply fall out of circulation. Also, this additional lab cost (and the scarcity surcharge) is passed on the exhibitors but not to consumers. A print of a classic French film from a New York based distributor is now likely to cost as much as a $500 minimum per engagement, with shipping costs in the three figures. At current costs, which also include payment for projectionist hours, a one-off screening begins breaking even at about 90 attendees.

So far, this is all kind of bad news for those of us who really do perceive a special magic in the way film looks and feels. Economically, celluloid film is on the verge of making no sense at all and the magic is not quantifiable on anyone’s spreadsheet. But there’s a way.  Jazz music at one time was free in bars or there was a cover equivalent to the price of a drink or two. It was a very popular musical form and while it was widely appreciated people got used to having it cheap or for free. Fast forward 60 years and we can still attend jazz concerts occasionally. If we are to hear a master – say, Ornette Coleman – we will expect to pay a high price. If we are to hear a local group of enthusiasts gigging at a local art center, we are probably fine even then with paying for the privilege, even if they’re not quite there yet, as a kind of tariff that keeps things moving in the right direction and keeps the kids practicing and learning their craft.

If we love 35mm film (and 16mm, and 70mm), we are like those jazz enthusiasts. Most people don’t care, can’t tell the difference, just want to hear the hits, but we’re in the pocket, we know. The way to put our money where our mouth is is to support those organizations (gosh, AFS comes to mind) that regularly deliver that magic that we rely on. And screenings of scratchy, sometimes discolored, often original release prints may not look as clean as a Blu-Ray but if you perceive the magic and the hope and want to keep the flame alive, you’ll drop a 5 or a 10 in the hat for those too. We’re all stretched all the time and probably in debt, but we make our choices all the time, every day and for those who talk about how much they love film, this is the way to walk it.

Everyone should make their own choices about whether or not to support screenings of digital formats as well. Because I watch a lot of new films, I watch a lot of DCP and even in circumstances where a new DCP is created of an older film I am generally willing to program it if there is no 35mm. People may differ here, but I am pretty invested in the magic of the communal experience of watching movies regardless of format issues. When we have perfection: a large crowd watching a 35mm print and talking afterwards about how the medium itself gave them greater appreciation of the work; it’s the very best. On the other hand when we have a large crowd watching an Orson Welles film that has been out of circulation on celluloid prints for years and being exposed to its majesty together, albeit in a digital format, we’re still doing pretty well. We’re still in it together.