After 120 years and countless movies, 35mm is officially on the way out. In January, 63% of the world’s screens will be digital, according to report from IHS. Last year, 67% of global screens were still 35mm. The year 2011 is the tipping point, when digital cinema replaces celluloid as the mainstream form of projection. It’s the end of an era and the start of something new.
“Since 1889, 35mm has been the principal film projection technology,” David Hancock, head of film research at IHS, said this week. “However, after 10 years of market priming, movie theatres now are undergoing a rapid transition … spurred initially by the rising popularity of 3D films.”
In 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar convinced the industry that it was time for an upgrade. Studios scrambled to slap a 3D sticker on their film, which would earn them both a ticket uplift and novelty audience appeal. And so cinemas joined the move towards digital, automating a process that projectionists have spent years perfecting.
The impact is as far-reaching as it gets. The distribution and manufacturing of prints has changed completely. In 2008, 13 billion feet of 35mm was used per year. Next year, 4 billion feet of celluloid will be used, as print production costs rise and films are sent out as files on USB sticks. The switchover is picking up speed. In America, the statistics warn, there will be no mainstream 35mm usage by 2014.
Many in the industry aren’t happy. The New Beverly cinema in LA, which only shows 35mm film, has started a petition against the end of print distribution.
“Films that make up the glorious history of the art … should be viewed as they were meant to be,” it reads. At the time of writing, it has 4,380 signatures.
There’s a lot of romanticising 35mm as a format. Tacita Dean’s Film (at Tate Modern until March) perfectly captures its fragile, deteriorating beauty, using techniques dating all the way back to Georges Méliès. It’s hard not to feel attached to a medium so steeped in nostalgia, but isn’t digital better?
High-definition picture and sound have eclipsed the quality of celluloid. All the major films are now digital, if not 3D. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus are both using the Red Epic camera, with Jackson shooting in 48fps – double the standard frame rate of 35mm.
Even that master of cinematography, Roger Deakins, is shooting Skyfall, the next Bond film, on Red’s rival, the Arri Alexa, according to the IMDb. If Deakins is doing it, surely digital’s a good thing?
But even if you can accept the improvement in quality, and the reduction in human and mechanical error, digital’s takeover has other casualties. With projectors now operated at the push of the button, projectionists are fading out from cinemas altogether. For the last few years, BECTU (the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union) has struggled to negotiate employment terms with major chains. Many projectionists are fired, or resign, while cinemas retain a handful as maintenance staff to perform other technical duties in between pressing “Play” and “Stop” on screenings of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Without the watchful eye of a projectionist, things can still go wrong. Digital screenings can freeze, the sound can cut out – or in one manufacturer fault (now reportedly fixed) – the picture can turn completely pink.
By ushering in digital and ushering out people, it’s not the medium that’s under threat, it’s the wealth of knowledge the industry is set to lose, as the art of projecting gives way to pixels and software packages.
“I think that some of the cinema chains are in an obscene hurry to dismantle the projectionist’s role and are losing a dedicated skill base that will never return,” comments BECTU national 0fficer Mick Corfield. “They all know the cost of a digital projector but not the value of a dedicated projectionist.”
It’s a sad price to pay for a CGI Chipmunk, something shown by the documentary The Last Projectionist, which played at Cannes this year. And yet it found those facing unemployment quite pragmatic.
“The projectionists know they work with technology, and although it’s a 100-year-old trade, if you go back further, that trade didn’t exist,” explains director Tom Lawes. “It’s a transient thing, and they understand that.”
The Last Projectionist captures the history of cinema – particularly independent cinema – while the projectionist trade is still around. The documentary visits the IMAX at Birmingham’s Thinktank to film the setup of its 70mm projector. Since then, the IMAX has announced it can no longer afford to maintain the print format and has become a 4K digital screen instead.
While the Thinktank projectionist still has a job, the future isn’t bright for the man in the box. Eventually, someone will decide to streamline the system, and the role will be axed. But with the arrival of digital comes a new set of skills. In addition to the varying types of video files, there are events and satellite linkups that fill up cinema calendars. Digital theatre screenings, such as National Theatre’s NT Live, regularly sell out around the world, as people are given a new way to access culture that simply wasn’t possible with analogue.
The opportunities extend to regular programming too. While the New Beverly in LA continues its heartfelt campaign, the Electric cinema in Birmingham (owned by Last Projectionist director Lawes) has just upgraded its two screens to digital and enjoys the newfound flexibility.
“We can easily move films around from one screen to another,” Lawes explains, highlighting the changing relationship between studios and smaller venues. “We showed X-Men: First Class this year one week off release date – that never would have happened before.”
It’s good for independent productions too: “We don’t have to send a film off to another cinema. We can keep it here on the server and, for a small film such as Weekend, we’ve got the flexibility to show it again in a few months.”
Producing a digital print is also far cheaper for film-makers, giving them a better shot at distribution. “Ironically, The Last Projectionist couldn’t have been made without digital,” Lawes admits. “If we had to create 10 35mm prints, you’d be looking at £20,000. Where’s that going to come from? The Film Council? They’ve shut that down.”
As The Last Projectionist gets a UK theatrical run next year with City Screen (who operate the Picturehouse cinemas chain), it’s a fitting tribute to a dying age, as digital changes cinema for small companies as well as global corporations.
The year 2011 is the most important one for cinema since 1927. It’s sad to see 35mm become a specialist format projected by a few, but 120 years is a pretty good run for any form of technology – DVD has only been around for 14. Even once 3D’s appeal has worn off, digital will remain an exciting new medium for film-makers and audiences. And while the New Beverly and others continue to show prints the way they were originally intended, the machine keeps rolling forward. Film is dead. Long live film.