Fighting for 35mm…and Our Cinematic Heritage

There’s no doubt that the future of cinema is going to be digital rather than film (as a physical format). Theatres are converting to digital projection right and left, with fewer and fewer 35mm film prints struck all the time, and the major camera manufacturers are ceasing production of film cameras to focus solely on digital cameras instead. It’s where the demand is. But this shift to digital doesn’t only affect new films, which are likely to be shot, edited, and projected digitally, never spending any phase of their creation on physical film – it also affects older films, which were shot on 35mm and meant to be projected on 35mm. Many Hollywood studios have declared their intention to stop producing 35mm prints of older films for use in repertory cinemas, museums, film forums, universities, etc, instead presenting those films only in digital formats as well.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why this makes sense to them. Digital copies are much easier and cheaper to store and transfer to theatres than bulky 35mm film prints. And many people will argue that digital looks better anyway, or at least consumers won’t be able to tell the difference. I heartily disagree with that – I love the tactile, physical look that 35mm has vs. the sterility of digital. But my point of view is quickly labeled romantic and old-fashioned in a world where cinema is a business and 35mm is antiquated technology. To some degree, it is a romantic perspective. I certainly get a rush of emotion every time I walk into the Silent Movie Theatre and see the film canisters sitting there, ready to be lovingly threaded through the projector by the seasoned projectionist for the evening’s screening. I smile when I see the cigarette burns signalling a reel change. I feel a connection to other audiences when a print is flawed through its many uses in other cinemas, screened for other audiences in other places. But what do my emotions, certainly the emotions of a minority of cinemagoers, matter in this equation?

I’m definitely not alone in my love for seeing films projected on 35mm (or 70mm or whatever format was originally used to shoot them) – Julia Marchese of Los Angeles’s New Beverly Cinema, one of the foremost repertory cinemas in the country and one that would certainly feel the loss of 35mm prints, has started an online petition to Fight for 35mm. It currently has nearly 6,000 signatures of a hoped-for 10,000. Here’s the bulk of her plea:

I firmly believe that when you go out to the cinema, the film should be shown in 35mm. At the New Beverly, we have never been about making money – a double feature ticket costs only $8. We are passionate about cinema and film lovers. We still use a reel to reel projection system, and our projectionists care dearly about film, checking each print carefully before it screens and monitoring the film as it runs to ensure the best projection possible. With digital screenings, the projectionists will become obsolete and the film will be run by ushers pushing a button – they don’t ever have to even enter the theater.

The human touch will be entirely taken away. The New Beverly Cinema tries our hardest to be a timeless establishment that represents the best that the art of cinema has to offer. We want to remain a haven where true film lovers can watch a film as it was meant to be seen – in 35mm. Revival houses perform an undeniable service to movie watchers – a chance to watch films with an audience that would otherwise only be available for home viewing. Film is meant to be a communal experience, and nothing can surpass watching a film with a receptive audience, in a cinema, projected from a film print.

I feel very strongly about this issue and cannot stand idly by and let digital projection destroy the art that I live for. As one voice I cannot change the future, but hopefully if enough film lovers speak up, we can prove to the studios that repertory cinema is important and that we want 35mm to remain available to screen.

Pleading that digital takes away “the human touch” and devalues the “communal experience” may be a romantic argument, but I think it’s a true and valid one. Step by step we’re moving away from that, as we see more films isolated in our homes, individually on our computers and tablets, and in small groups of never-interacting people in multiplexes. The only places I’ve really had what I’d consider communal moviegoing experiences are festivals, where passholders generally spend 8-10 days bumping into each other constantly in lines and theatres, and in rep cinemas – and rep cinemas are far better at it even than festivals. Sure, you can get that with digital prints, because that doesn’t change the audience, does it? But it does, subtly, and a lot of rep cinemagoers are avid 35mm fans. I know people who won’t go to see screenings at Cinefamily if they weren’t able to get a 35mm print for it. Silly, perhaps, but on some level I understand their argument. Going digital is a loss, and it’s part of the loss of the specialness of going to the theatre. You can see digital versions of films in an isolationist bubble at home, so why go to the theatre for that? In a roundabout way, studios are killing their own business, by making the theatrical experience too close to the home experience. On a different but related note, there are many smaller cinemas spread throughout the country, both repertory and first-run, that simply don’t have the money to convert to digital. They’ll close, leaving small towns with few or no alternatives for moviegoing.

The other side of this coin is in the area of preservation. Digital preservation can be a wonderful thing – it provides a backup for fragile 35mm film that’s more stable, doesn’t deteriorate, and is easily reproduced and distributed as necessary. Unless the file becomes corrupted, or the data center crashes, or file formats change. In addition, it’s a fact known to archivists, scholars, and cinephiles that every time a format changes – from 35mm to VHS to DVD to Blu-ray to digital – more and more films are actually left behind. The myth is that once everything goes digital, everything will be available to everybody, but that’s not true. There are more films right now on 35mm than on any other format, because choices have to be made with every format what’s worth money to the studio to produce in the new format. Maybe the things left behind aren’t very good, or maybe no one’s interested in seeing them anyway. But that’s our cinematic heritage, and it is ALL worth saving – that is the backbone of preservation and restoration. Many people get interested in preservation through seeing 35mm prints of films and realizing that this is something special that ought to be preserved. Denying the importance of 35mm film is denying the importance of our cinematic history.

Movieline’s Jen Yamato brought up the issue in a discussion-generating post a couple of weeks ago, and generate discussion it did – with people both for and against. Taking on a few of those commenters, Dennis Cozzalio posted a lengthy but well-worth reading article. He covers a lot of different approaches to the subject, cogently and passionately but also with a lot of balance and understanding for the financial issues at stake. Please read it, he does a much better and more thorough job talking about this than I have. Admittedly, even if Marchese gets the 10,000 names she wants on the petition, how much are major Hollywood studios going to care about 10,000 people, however passionate, against their bottom line? Still, there are reasons enough to make our voices heard, and if 35mm is important to you, sign and share the petition, but also write about it on your own blogs and social networks, attend screenings in 35mm whenever you can (especially at rep cinemas – the New Beverly, Cinefamily, American Cinematheque, the Nuart, LACMA, the Academy in Los Angeles; Film Forum, Walter Reade Theatre, and MOMA in New York; TIFF Lightbox in Toronto; Pacific Film Archive and Castro Theatre in the San Francisco area; Alamo Drafthouse in Austin; and others), aid film preservation foundation and archives like UCLA, Eastman House, Film Foundation, the Academy, etc., and help preserve the love of actual, tactile, physical, visceral 35mm film in any way you can.


Jandy Hardesty
balancing moviewatching, gaming, reading, and parenting ain't easy, but it's fun!