Before long film will be but a memory at your local cinema as reel projectors are replaced with newer, sharper digital systems.
THROUGHOUT ITS history, celluloid film has seen many other recording formats rise and fall. Developed back in the late 19th century, this thin, fragile, and expensive medium has outlasted long-playing records, compact discs, and video cassettes, and remained the movie industry's prime method of initial distribution deep into the digital age, despite the growing importance of DVDs to the bottom line.
Even today, when just about every other recording medium has gone digital, the market for 35mm celluloid film continues to thrive.
Last year was one the best for Kodak the industry's main supplier of raw film stock and many of the laboratories that process film are running close to capacity. So why are the days of 35mm film said to be numbered?
The movie industry if we can still call it that is pushing to cut the last bits of celluloid from the filmmaking loop. Many directors now shoot entirely with digital cameras; post-production and special effects went digital years ago; and increasingly the only bit of film in the filmmaking process has been at the consumer end, with a reel specially made for the projector booths in your local cinema. Now even that is about to go.
Cinemas have already started replacing their old, analogue projectors with newer digital ones. If you saw the recent Superman Returns or for that matter Borat, Apocalypto or Miami Vice in a cinema fitted with a digital projector, you will have watched a "film" shot on digital cameras, edited on computers, and screened using a projector that has no film in it. From start to finish, shooting to screening, the whole process was made up entirely of zeros and ones.
The end of analogue
But so what? Does it make any difference to you if the "film" you see is digital or not? It might, says Rupert Gavin, the chief executive of Odeon and UCI. Next week the U.K.'s largest cinema chain will announce that it is to convert two of its big multiplexes, one in Hatfield in Hertfordshire in south-east England and another in London's Docklands, to digital projection. Odeon already has 30 digital projectors dotted around the country, but these two multiplexes will be the first in Europe to dispense with film altogether.
And that could well prove to be a tipping point, marking a moment when it became possible for a large corporate multiplex to show its usual fare of blockbusters without recourse to analogue prints. Odeon is able to able to do this because the major film distribution companies if we can still call them that are now offering practically every movie in a digital format.
Mr. Gavin says that digital projectors offer a sharper image and digital prints "remain excellent throughout the run of the film." Shorn of scratches and sudden pops, a digital "print," like an MP3 audio file, remains just as good no matter how many times it is played. And yet despite these advancements in the quality of the image, the switch to digital is really a story of distribution.
Digital projectors make it easier to respond to customer demand, explains Mr. Gavin, by "increasing the number of auditoria showing a popular movie."
Instead of having to have a huge spool of film for each screening, cinema managers will receive a digital master (with watermarking to deter piracy) by courier. That can be copied and then shown on more than one screen. And so, every time a movie sells out, cinema managers can switch it to other screens to satisfy sudden surges in demand; or if a supposed blockbuster is a damp squib, it can be snatched from screens equally as swiftly.
This greater flexibility of screenings, says Mr. Gavin, might have benefits not usually associated with big multiplex cinemas. Without the burden of paying for a print, it should be easier for multiplexes to screen movies taken from the long tails of arthouse and foreign-language cinema.
But if digital multiplexes learn to cater for the arthouse market (while it learns to cater for them by generating digital prints), what happens to the arthouse cinemas? At around £3,000 per physical print, celluloid remains an expensive investment. It is extraordinarily bulky films can be often over a mile long and it deteriorates the very moment it starts to roll.
On the other hand, digital cinema projectors cost around £100,000 each. So you might expect the independent cinemas to be wary of the digital handover. But, says Jon Barrenechea, general manager of the Duke of York in Brighton, a leading arthouse cinema, "It's more of a case of the multiplexes catching up."
The Duke of York went digital in October last year, thanks to the U.K. Film Council's strategy to equip 240 independent cinemas with the latest digital kit. In exchange for the cost of the projectors, the recipient cinemas signed an agreement to screen more specialist and foreign-language films. The Duke of York has also taken advantage of the technology to broaden its output.
"We are currently programming a whole season of live operas in high definition from the Metropolitan in New York," says Mr. Barrenechea. "We've also screened the Secret Policeman's Ball for Amnesty International live from London." More "off-cinema" projects are planned.
But if there is no film in film, can we still use the f-word when talking about movies? You can, says Patrick Von Sychowski of Deluxe Laboratories. "Despite huge advances in the technology there's no better way to archive movies than on bulky reels of celluloid."
So even a movie like Superman Returns, which has never seen a frame of celluloid in its active life, will have be saved for future generations in its oldest form. Film, it seems, has not quite reached the end of its final reel.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007