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Saturday, January 18, 2014

The End of Film [Blogging Every Day #18]

My father, who was an executive at 20th Century-Fox for forty-five years, never quite agreed with the film historians who mourned the golden age of cinema and complained that the industry was now all about money. "It's always been about money" he liked to point out. True, the days of the mogul have passed, and movie studios are run by multi-national corporations - but making money has always been part of the game. Studios may not take as many risks nowadays - but even then, as it is with any corporation - if you didn't make money, you went out of business. Fox itself nearly did when it bet nearly everything on "Cleopatra" in 1963 (about $40 million then) - adjusted for 2014 dollars, it's likely the most expensive film ever made. Only through a dramatic management shift, extreme belt tightening, and the phenomenal success two years later of "The Sound of Music" did Fox survive long enough to weather the storm. Studios today will rarely take such a risk - and are even more beholden to their investors and stockholders.

With the recent announcement from Paramount Pictures that they will cease film distribution altogether, the first major studio to do so, the "film" era is finally coming to an end. Film distribution is an incredibly expensive process - creating film prints and shipping them worldwide to individual theaters has become a luxury, particularly in a time when high-definition projection has advanced so far that - for the average moviegoer, at least - it's indistinguishable from film projection. Digital distribution is much cheaper, and will win the day.

Yes, I know, there is a difference, just as there is a difference between vinyl audio, mp3 audio and so-called HD audio - but, really, only purists will squirm. Complain as you will, it's not bad at all. It won't ruin the experience, and it's not going to change. Technology will continue to improve on the digital side, while the expertise to maintain a high quality production and distribution process on film will whither away.

Many prominent filmmakers still shoot on film (an interesting article about the debate), but I suspect that this will prove to be a generational divide as time goes on. The economics of using century old technology will make the transition complete, sooner or later.

What would my dad think? Even before he retired in 1987, he spoke of the coming era of digital distribution. He recognized that once the technology was there, it was inevitable. If he were around today, he wouldn't be surprised, shocked or disappointed.

Zac Ward, a YouTuber I've become acquainted with over the last couple of years, created this video about the massive projectors that brought us thousands of films (if you must mourn....)


  1. It's true. Yes, I cringe when I see that I've just paid to see a - GASP - digitally presented movie in the theater. But the fact remains that only during a handful of brief moments in the presentation am I reminded of that fact, and this happens less and less frequently as the technology improves.

    Meanwhile, unless people live in NYC, LA, or maybe a handful of other places (SF, Boston, Chicago), the only *film* prints they've ever seen have been pretty beat up by the time they got to their local theaters.

    I may see a shot here and there on screen now that remind me I'm watching digital. But it's been quite some time since I've seen scratches, breaks, burnt frames, spliced frames, reels out of order, frame lines across the center of the screen...

    Yes, I'm old. Yes, I'm nostalgic for the technology I grew up on (that video you link to at the end is great).

    But when I plunk down $20+ for my wife and I to go the theater, I have to reluctantly admit, I'll take the best technology you have to offer, thank you.

  2. There are still folks that pine for the horse and buggy days. Yet they do not move to Amish country. It is the same with digital film vs 35mm.