Is 35mm dead? Projecting the future:
Print vs. digital theatrical projection Part 2
Increasingly, studios are securing film prints in vaults and only sending DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages – hard drives with files of the movie) to exhibitors. In an April 12 article in LA Weekly, “Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling,” reporter Gendy Alimurung stated, “The six major studios spend $850 million a year to have release prints made, and an additional $450 million to deliver them.” She also reported that theatre owners received this letter from 20th Century Fox in November 2011,: “The date is fast approaching when 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight will adopt the digital format as the only format in which it will theatrically distribute its films…We strongly advise those exhibitors that have not yet done so to take immediate steps to convert their theaters to digital projection systems.”
For chain and first-run theatres, conversion to digital is a no-brainer. For art houses, classic theatres, and other independent exhibitors, adopting the new format is financially prohibitive. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, warned at the association’s annual convention last year, “If you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.”
Beyond the financial aspect, some moviegoers and cinema owners want both a print and a digital choice, like book readers have. And then there are the folks such as projectionists, curators, post personnel, and couriers whose livelihoods are threatened and have been extinguished by digis and the businesses like labs and film stock manufacturers – just think Kodak – that they’ve shut down. Also, ponder how editing and cameras have gone digital.
But this is not to decry DCPs or take a Luddite leap back to the days of film only. Rather, the big question, as I ended Part 1 of this two-part series remains: How will digital stack up against print in the future?
As discussed in my March two-partner, ““Digitally yours forever: Where and how is preservation going?” a major downside of going digital lies in its preservation. Studios tend to look at short term profits and ignore that their product may not be available for future profit if DCP sources are not properly migrated to new formats as they evolve and vaulted properly along the way.
Losing data or having it become corrupt is also a scary but realistic nightmare and has occurred on major films, as Alimurung notes, on Toy Story 1 and Toy Story 2. She quotes an engineer, Shawn Jones, “Digital snowballs on you. It starts simple. Then as you grow and use more of it, your costs quickly escalate.” Digital data cannot just be vaulted and abandoned, like film negative. Data and its devices require testing, playing, and maintaining at regular intervals. And often it’s repurposed for games or videos or otherwise manipulated, so maintaining and preserving it is an active, ongoing job.
Sad and frightening to think that we’re creating more content than ever every day yet its life may be snuffed out more quickly than ever.