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.

 

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43 Comments on "Fighting for 35mm…and Our Cinematic Heritage"

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Kurt
Guest

It’s a weird thing to march against progress. I agree with almost all the aesthetic arguments offered here, but I’m a fatalist enough to simply know that Business will trump Art in this case. I’ll enjoy things while i can, this process will probably take a full decade to completely tail out for rep houses. For me, personally, the 1990s, early 2000s have been really good for my own consumption of film at rep houses: The Princess Theatre in Waterloo, The Ontario Cinematheque, the Bloor Cinema, The Revue, The Royal and eventually The Underground and Lightbox have made me feel that Rep Cinema is still alive enough….

Corey Atad
Guest

As nice as 35mm projection is, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to rep houses if money was saved on prints and shipping costs, and especially if some of that money could go to properly digitizing the vast studio archives? Why should a rep house have to search high and low for a crappy 35mm print of a movie when a studio could have it transfered and digitized in high quality. That’s the future of film preservation, and I would that that rep houses would support the goal.

Sean Patrick Kelly
Guest

I have to admit that I wouldn’t all out stop seeing films theatrically if 35mm is discontinued and I’ve seen a few digital prints of old films at the Bell Lightbox and they looked pretty decent.

That said, there is a certain “authenticity” to 35mm films that can’t be duplicated. I love everything from the reel changes (which sometimes results in a slight skip in older films) to the static hiss of the soundtrack.

I believe I signed that petition a few weeks ago and even if studios decide to convert all old films to digital, they should still keep the 35mm prints and give theatres a choice.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

I will tell you this, any time CINNSU, THE UNDERGROUND OR LIGHTBOX shows an older film and specifies that it is 35mm (or 70mm) print, my interest in attending is higher than if they said, brand new digital version.

Recent viewings of HARD CORE LOGO, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE ROCKETEER and EUROPA all confirm this…

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

You’re getting ahead of yourself, Jandy. The Studios would have to make Smurfs 2, first.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

Seriously though, I’m a big fan of ‘damaged prints’ (if that makes any sense) seen in the right context. A print of THE THING that the arctic was BLOOD RED due to print fading. All the reel-change noise on a recent screening of 12 Monkeys. Hell, I saw Cronenberg’s SHIVERS projected in the wrong aspect ratio (actually, square) and thought it looked cool as a ‘peep show’ in that format.

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Nat Almirall
Guest

A few thoughts:

1) A good, great, or wretched movie can be enjoyed or indulged on both 35mm and digital. We all have our preferences and experiences, but the format is not the only thing that defines a film.

2) Jandy, your point about everything not being available to everyone is, I think, slightly off. I agree to a point, but a less costly means of preserving film means it’s easier to preserve films. If all we had were 35mm prints and not VHS, DVD, laserdisc, or my beloved BetaMax, there’d be far fewer films preserved at all.

3) Movies have always been a business, and rep cinemas are businesses, too. I’m sure M. Marchese is very proud of the fact that The New Beverley doesn’t turn a much of a profit, but perhaps if she charged more for admission, her theater could stay in business longer, and everyone would be happy. (Then again, the bulk of the petition reads more like an ad for The New Beverley, so maybe Marchese has some business savvy after all.)

4) Having someone in the projection booth or seeing film canisters may add to many people’s viewing enjoyment, but it doesn’t add to mine.

Nor do I think movies are “meant to be a communal experience.” What the Hell does that even mean? I don’t go to movies to fling woo at the busty blonde sitting next to me or join in a chorus of Christian revival songs once the flick’s ended. If anything, I’d prefer to be the only one in my theater; well, no, if anything, I’m trying to ignore the busty blonde next to me who’s been texting her boyfriend Scutch the entire time or preparing to tell the sassy madame in the fourth row to shut the Hell up. And yes, there are many things that surpass watching a film with a receptive audience, especially when that film is a screening of The Change-Up and they’re laughing their communal asses off.

5) Do we really need to preserve everything? Especially when there’s so much that no one will ever (nor have any intention to) watch?

Sean Patrick Kelly
Guest

The moment I decided seeing a film in a theatre, with a crowd, was the preferable way for me was when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in a rep cinema after many solo viewings of it on VHS. There’s no substitute for a theatrical experience.

There’s no substitute.

Sean Patrick Kelly
Guest

Opps. Didn’t mean to type “there’s no substitue” twice.

Nat Almirall
Guest

Regarding point 4, I think you have to accept that it works both ways, and the audience you see a film with, more often than not, hinders the experience rather than enhances it.

Though I have been to rep cinemas (we have one the best here, The Music Box), and I recently saw Raiders of the Lost Ark there, which was an awesome experience. However, I went to it because I wanted to see the film on the big screen, not because I wanted to observe the audience’s reaction to it (which amounted to little more than some laughs at Belloq eating the fly and a little kid who wouldn’t shut the hell up).

But of course, it’s all subjective. You and many others may like seeing movies with a big group, and I don’t. We all have our preferences, and, contrary to what M Marchese believes, not all of us need that “human touch” to enjoy a film to its fullest.

Andrew James
Admin

In regards to #4, I too think it totally depends. I remember Gamble and I fighting about this on a Cinecast in which he claimed seeing The Social Network is so much better seeing it with a packed audience. I COMPLETELY disagree. For something like The Social Network or Another Earth or Take Shelter, I want to be as involved in the film as much as possible. That means not being shoulder to shoulder with some schlub or trying to see over the head in front of me or seeing a cell phone light coming from row two in front of me.

But, when I go to see 13 Assassins or District 13 or Hobo with a Shotgun or something, then yeah, seeing it with an audience adds to the experience. I would say most comedies are this way too. Laughter can be contagious (unless you find the movie very unfunnny and everyone else is laughing in which case you kind of feel like a dumbass (Rush Hour 3 or Bruno).

Sean Patrick Kelly
Guest

There’s a reason Robert Rodriguez likes putting Audience Reaction tracks on his DVDs.

John Allison
Editor

I love the idea that 35mm brings something special to films but I have seen enough damaged prints to know that I would have rather watched a new digital restoration when the print is terrible. This is not always the case as some movies feel right when they are damaged but in most cases give me a clean digital print over a damaged one any day.

As someone who mainly screens digital due to the costs involved with shipping 35mm I can say without a doubt I have seen some digital screenings that looked as good if not better than 35mm. What it really comes down to is having a good projectionist and a good system. If both are good you will not for one minute miss 35mm.

I’m going to guess that the majority of people here who saw Hugo and really loved it, dug it because of the story, and what was on the screen. The fact that it was a digital copy probably did not lessen the impact of what was on the screen.

For me it all comes down to nostalgia. Yes, 35mm prints can be beautiful but so can digital.

Matt Gamble
Guest

I’m so glad Row Three is vehemently defending that Torque must only be seen in 35mm.

John Allison
Editor

At a recent meeting for the local community owned theatre the guy who runs a midnight series made a comment about not carrying on with doing screenings if 35mm were no long available as a format. I just think of how it would suck to no longer to be able to catch the movies he shows just because of being tied to a format when really the content and the level of audience enjoyment would really be the same.

John Allison
Editor

Totally agree, but I also feel that as technology progresses we will get digital that is better quality and can have the same “feeling” as a 35mm print. I’ll have to find the screen capture I found from the new Red Epic camera. It is truly stunning.

I don’t think we should separate two of the points though of having a projectionist who is skilled and 35mm. They are not truly tied together. Having a good projectionist means the difference between a good screening and a bad screening no matter what format.

John Allison
Editor

What Camera did I Use…

Make sure to click on the photo to show it at full resolution. Just imagine… 96 frames per second at this quality.

John Allison
Editor

the more I think on this the more I realize the things we are losing are not tied to the format but to our (society’s) attitudes.

1) Make everything easy and not need skill is complete bull. It takes skill to make movies and it takes skill to show them properly. Anyone can buy a camera and make a movie but not everyone can make it good. Anyone can set up a home theatre but not everyone can calibrate it properly this is 10 times true with a real theatre.

2) We are assaulted constantly with entertainment and this creates a sense of lessening the true works of art. It just becomes another movie out of the 1000 that are being created and screened.

3) Why should I check out an older movie when I can catch one of the newer ones that are readily available. My time is valuable and I shouldn’t waste it tracking down those movies that might be a hidden gem.

4) Why can’t I use my phone, iTouch, email etc during a movie. My time is important.

All of these are are something that we should try to be fighting and railing against. I would much rather see effort going into educating and encouraging people to try different movies, to spend some time thinking about them. We should be willing to pay the cost required to have a good projectionist and not a teenager making $8 an hour.

John Allison
Editor

I guess, I don’t see the things you have listed as being part of the movie. I see them as being part of the film stock which has deteriorated. I also don’t really get anything from the digital movies that try to mimic film and how it deteriorates. I would much rather see the time and energy go into storytelling as opposed to making something look like it is old and beat up.

The imperfections I want to see are the imperfections in peoples faces, in the environment around them and also the imperfections in the story.

I can’t help but think of someone like Ti West. I just saw the InnKeepers and loved it. It had a classic old feel to it yet I don’t remember him once resorting to making it look like an 70s or 80s movie. His story was a throwback and showed a love of cinema. That is what I care about not the technical format.

Paul
Guest

Jandy, I agree with most of what you’ve written. I have seen many old films projected digitally and it’s definitley not the same. The moment I sit down and watch a film, if it was not shot on 35mm I know, and it’s irritating as hell. I spend the whole time getting annoyed.

Despite the fact that digital doesn’t look as good, the studios will not care as they know the majority won’t even notice that they’re paying for something inferior and that’s a real shame. As with most filmmakers, they will give their everything when it comes to making the film, whereas the studio will give the least amount that they can get away with.

I just got back from watching ‘Rock Of Ages’. When I arrived the curtains were open and there was no music playing. When the trailers finally started, the screen was in the wrong ratio: not only that it kept changing. We started off with two black lines at the side of the screen, to letterbox ie: a square in the middle of the screen. Most of ‘American Werewolf in London’ had those black lines at the sides of the screen as well, instantly revealing we were watching either a file or blu-ray disc. Plus the clarity of the picture wasn’t as good. I knew it was digital – I didn’t need to be told. That’s just shoddy presentation, another complaint I have about recent theater exhibiton.

Projectionists have been laid off and whatever chimpanzee is pressing the button on the hard drive, they don’t care anymore. The attitude seems to be “just stick the film on and don’t worry about how it looks”. I might add don’t bother to even open and close the curtains either.

Professional projectionists are artists, bringing the print in taking it apart, sticking it back together, threading it through the projector. There is unquestionably something severely missing now….. And don’t get me started in the case of ‘ The Dark Crystal’. It was Blu-ray…and I had been told before the film started that it was 35mm film. Another small thing that no one’s mentioned is the wobble you get when the film goes through the projector gate, a very distracting thing if you’re used to it being there. It’s totally smooth with digital, not better. With the Dark Crystal, I was right up the front thinking it was 35mm to get the best experience – and I could see the bloody pixels, so got the worst experience. No way in hell is that better than the fine grain 35mm would’ve provided. Needless to say I got a refund when it was over. They tried to convince me “oh it’s so much better watching a shop bought $13 blu-ray disc compared to a $3,000 35mm film”. They’re right, it is – if you’re watching it on a 100 inch TV set, not a 50 foot cinema screen! Those discs were not designed for threatrical use they were designed for home use.

Then there’s the other side to the agument: we are no longer watching a ‘film’, we’re watching a video file. So why are people still calling it a film? Much like when you said why does the phone have a shutter sound to it? Because it makes people happy to identify with it that way. The fomat is dying but for some bizarre reason people are still calling the format ‘film’ which it isn’t anymore.

I will take the opportunity to see as many films as I can, before all the prints are destroyed. Will be seeing ‘The Shining’, ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’, ‘The Warriors’, ‘The Lost Boys’ and ‘Enter The Dragon’ all on film soon, so it’s nice to know that there are still cinemas that will show them, for the moment. I noticed that ‘Jaws’, another one which I’ve always wanted to see in a big auitorium is re-released, but it’s digital. I will pass until a print becomes available, otherwise I won’t bother. If it’s between watching classics digitally or 35mm I’ll watch 35mm or I won’t bother. I’m pretty adamant about that!

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