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And we know that everything falls to dust...
September 28, 2011 3:44 AM   Subscribe

Are small theaters punching a ticket to oblivion? Radical changes in the traditional structure of the lab processing and exhibition sides of the film industry have been filling the lives of small theater operators with uncertainty and worry for the last few years. Will filmstock be the next Kodachrome? (And what will that mean for the future of film preservation?)

From the address by Jonas Mekas - Lithuanian survivor of World War II, ebullient émigré to New York City, and groundbreaking maker of films and videos - in the last link. The sound of his voice adds a great deal to it, but some may appreciate a transcription of part of it:

"Cinema, filmstocks will disappear - fading out within five.. maybe a little bit longer. But whatever has been made on film should remain and be screened in certain, special places - institutions, museums - only as film. Therefore, every country should build a lab.... Labs made, sponsored by their governements that should continue production of film stocks. All the necessary equipment to develop, to produce prints and projection methods and technology so that films can be projected as films. I'm not [saying] that there should be labs and filmstocks produced for continuation of making films on film. I know that that is not going to happen. But whatever has been produced as film should be always projected, shown, and seen as film. Not as videos. It's completely different. There is a different energy - a different medium. That will have to happen, because what's recorded on film has been recorded during [the] last hundred and some - decades. It's part of our history, of our culture, of our memory. It just cannot be replaced. We have to experience it, see it, live with it.

I realize - [this] human obsession to keep everything into eternity. Everything has to survive, everything has to be seen 500 years from now, 1000 years from now. It is a beautiful obsession. And we know that everything falls to dust. Dust. What remains - the whole history of art - is just what is left after all the armies when through, all the disasters, all the dictators, all the fanatics. So whatever is left from past centuries, we treasure, we keep in the museums, and protect, we write dissertations about them. It's only fragments of what humans have left. The same will be with film, the same will be with cinema. Because it's so rare, what is still left. And so many films have disappeared. And it's so precious, what we still have, that we have to do everything to protect it as long as we can."
posted by bubukaba (36 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Everything has to survive, everything has to be seen 500 years from now, 1000 years from now.

I can think of many, many exceptions to that rule.

Higher up the food chain, you don't hear a peep about 35 mm, except in comparison to buggy-whip manufacturers in the early days of the automobile. Chris McGurk is in the catbird seat; as chief executive officer of Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp., in Woodland Hills, Calif., he's making millions in the business of installing digital cinema equipment. Is there any incentive for the six major film studios, plus all the other film distributors, to continue striking film prints for exhibition?

"None whatsoever. None," he says. "The studios will save over a billion dollars a year in distribution costs. It took probably five, 10 years too long to even get to this point in digital conversion because this industry is very resistant to change … a lot of talent was suspicious of the new medium. Some people were, and are, wedded to film, the arguing being that it's 'richer,' it's this, it's that, it's the other thing. Which is not true."


A billion dollars in distribution costs? That seems like hyperbole.

But even if not - measured against the ability to control how many copies are in circulation and where they are being shown - maybe one billion is cheap.

I mean, look at what happened to those audio companies when they walked away from vinyl.
posted by three blind mice at 3:53 AM on September 28, 2011


I can't say that I know much about the business, but I suspect, as with most technology, the longer the small theaters can hold out, the cheaper the new technology will become. As time goes on, more companies will start selling projectors, as RED will soon be doing, and they will be looking to sell 4K projectors for consumers to install in their homes. Plus, the market for used gear can only grow from here.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 4:05 AM on September 28, 2011


I mean, look at what happened to those audio companies when they walked away from vinyl.
It became a fetish object for folks who wanted a physical object to complement their MP3s? Vinyl sales are up this year, even though it never really went away -- there were huge markets in Europe, and many collectors still bought vinyl even after CDs and tapes outsold it.

(Also, just because I have a DVD of Il Conformista or The Red Shoes -- doesn't mean that I never want to see a print of them again.)
posted by pxe2000 at 4:11 AM on September 28, 2011


A billion dollars in distribution costs? That seems like hyperbole.

No, that's studio accounting. The studios own the distribution companies, and write up whatever charges they need to in order to make the books look however they want. Here's an accounting sheet for one of the Harry Potter films where the studio "pays" itself $212million in order to keep the movie in the red.
posted by hippybear at 4:43 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is going to be a very rough patch until the 4k standard becomes more widely available to the home market - and then the economic tide turns decidedly in favor of small venues like drive-ins, second-run theaters and art-houses.

4K is "good enough" - which in this case means visibly superior to a 35mm print - and that means they can use commodity equipment except for the projectors, and those will be plummeting in price, even at the high end required for large outdoor screens.

The cost of sourcing, shipping, splicing and then breaking down films is gone. Download a 4K-rez file in the format of your choice, click "play," pay the public performance licensing fee.

Let me explain how immense this is. Rocky Horror Picture Show prints are rare as hen's teeth, jealously guarded by the movie houses that have managed to lease them, and the studio really isn't interested in running off any more. With digital, there's no risk or cost to let any cinema download RHPS - no danger the rare and highly demanded print will go walkabout, or wind up damaged. Just download and play.

Film festivals - the cost to source and lease well known movies like Blade Runner or Buckaroo Banzai is through the roof. Some, like the Wizard of Oz, just plain aren't available at reasonable cost. Now? The cost is bandwidth and licensing. Every theater in the country could show Singing in the Rain on every screen at once 3:00am Sunday morning, and it's no skin off the studio's nose.

This means these classic movies will be cheap and easy to show on the big screen - and it will be a market that small and independent cinemas will have entirely to themselves.

Can you imagine Date Night Thursdays, with a double-feature romance/action bill of the most popular musicals and detective dramas of all time? Monster Movie Matinees! Buckaroo Banzai at midnight!

Going to the movies will be an =event= again.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:08 AM on September 28, 2011 [6 favorites]


filling the lives of small theater operators with uncertainty and worry for the last few years.

Considering the impact multiplex cinemas and Netflix have had, this would be just the last nail in the coffin for a lot of small theaters.

I do think the film/vinyl analogy is right though. Film will persist, albeit on a "niche" scale, with corresponding adjustments in the exhibition market.
posted by Rykey at 5:09 AM on September 28, 2011


There's only a small handfull of independent theaters left around here now. Maybe three or four and one drive-in. The big mega-plexes have killed the rest.
posted by octothorpe at 5:16 AM on September 28, 2011


everything falls to dust

I didn't know Jonas Mekas was still alive. I see his brother Adolfas died just this year.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:24 AM on September 28, 2011


Nice informative post, bubukaba; many thanks for putting it together.
posted by mediareport at 5:35 AM on September 28, 2011


Chris McGurk is in the catbird seat; as chief executive officer of Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp., in Woodland Hills, Calif., he's making millions in the business of installing digital cinema equipment.

I always enjoy interviews with people who are making millions off a New Thing who, after careful consideration, declare that their New Thing is indispensable and the way to go.

The current 3-D wave, of uncertain duration, got its mojo from the enviable international success, in 2-D, but especially in digital 3-D, of James Cameron's "Avatar." That film's monumental appeal posed a tough question to exhibitors: Can you afford not to convert to digital, and miss out on the next "Avatar"?

Avatar, and Mars Needs Moms, and Step Up 3-D, and Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, and Glee 3-D, and Conan The Barbarian 3-D, and Dolphin Tale, and The Nutcracker in 3-D...
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:48 AM on September 28, 2011


There's only a small handfull of independent theaters left around here now. Maybe three or four and one drive-in. The big mega-plexes have killed the rest.

A part of me is torn, as every town i've lived in the past 20 years has had one or more (three cities). Oriental Theater in Milwaukee, was my favorite, as it played the odd ball films that didn't make bigger ones (Akira, art house films, and a midnight Rocky Horror with great live crew). Then i moved to LaCrosse, WI, which had smaller ones, but the thing that bugged me there was that they were near downtown, and frequented by drunks, who would not shut up. Now i live in a small college town that has an odd theater that shows first run movies at a very cheap price (a couple bucks a film. I forget the details of how they do this, something about the guy who owned it or something), but it's kind of run down, and again people don't shut up.

The sad thing is i tend to have a better time at the bigger ones, seats are better feeling and in better condition, films aren't damaged as much, and there is usually enough room to avoid the talkers. Frankly though, i'll tend to avoid all but the ones i "have" to see, and just wait until dvd or bluray. I don't care if it's "less" than what a film would be like, just like i don't care about vinyl.

The only thing is that most film seems to last longer than digital media, although you could easily keep media up to date, unlike the films lost due to time or war (the silent films of Louise Brooks come to mind, the silver in them, and the fact that they became very flammable)
posted by usagizero at 5:50 AM on September 28, 2011


A billion dollars in distribution costs? That seems like hyperbole.

It'll save a lot of money. Think about the cost of making all those prints for a major motion picture... If a print costs $2,500 apiece (ballpark figure, depends on the running time) and Avatar opened on 14,000+ screens (internationally, 5000+ just in the US) you're talking $35,000,000 just in film prints for one movie alone if you did it the old fashioned way. Then you have to ship them. Compare that to a digital file that everyone downloads. I could see it all adding up to a billion dollars.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:55 AM on September 28, 2011


This means these classic movies will be cheap and easy to show on the big screen - and it will be a market that small and independent cinemas will have entirely to themselves.

We're already there. The small independent theater near here shows late night cult classics, and often just project a Blu-Ray or even a DVD if they can't get 35mm.
posted by smackfu at 5:57 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Particularly when we're talking about experimental or film as art (not just, you know, theatrically released narrative film), Mekas's point is especially important. I absolutely love my Criterion Blu Ray of the Stan Brakhage set, but having seen some of his work projected on film over the years (at Anthology in NYC) it really does not compare, or even come close. In these types of films the art has a close relationship to the strengths and flaws of the medium on an obsessive scale, reacting to it the way a painter might react to the rippled surface of his own medium. On video, those surfaces are flattened out.

That's not to say cinematic art created on video isn't awesome on it's own, it's just that those artists are molding their work around the strengths and flaws of their own medium. Some VHS created video art is a little mis-represented when seen on DVD on a flatscreen TV instead of via a VCR on a CRT, etc...
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 5:57 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sort of damned you do, damned if you don't. I went to see Blue Velvet the other day in our town's local theater, and they projected it off of Blu-Ray or some shit. It looked *horrible*. The whole point of me spending money to go see it in the theater was to experience something I couldn't experience at home. The difference between projecting a Blu-Ray and projecting a 35mm print is huge. Especially for those of us film nerds out there who want to see some of the older, classic films as they were shot and intended to be seen. Aaargh. Makes me sad to see that this is probably the way it's going to go.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 7:05 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Worst case scenario, and film does go out?" Dehn asks. "They maybe we end up playing classics all summer long. Those prints will always be there." Then again, "always" is a dangerous word to use when you're talking about a can of film.

There are tons of movies that I never had a chance to see in theaters, and very few new movies that I actually want to see in a first run theater.

How much does it cost to obtain and show a print of Aliens, or E.T., or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure? If you could make going to see those fun - an event - then you might even be able to get away with charging 8 dollars a ticket. Offer discounts for people who dress up. Get a liquor license to serve beer and wine, and offer themed drink nights. Serve decent food at your concession stand for a reasonable mark-up.

I would pay a decent amount of money to go out with my friends, get a few overpriced drinks, and watch a movie that I knew was going to be good in an actual theater experience with high quality film prints and a projector.

Plus, as theaters liquidate their classic film prints, are they being destroyed or resold? It might be extremely cheap to buy up a lot of celluloid prints that aren't going to be used again. I think the sticky part would be the distribution rights to show them in a public space.
posted by codacorolla at 7:08 AM on September 28, 2011


Digital productions just seem so cold in general.

If every level of movie-making and viewing passes through a computer, is the viewer at the theater catigorically getting a better experience?

Would a movie-goer want to pay more for a production made mostly from traditional film-making methods in order to support a production dedicated to this medium because of better quality or specific content?
posted by Meatafoecure at 7:13 AM on September 28, 2011


@slap*happy
In NYC and LA? Yes - small theatres will be forced to bow out, or survive as niche indie attractions. In Flint, MI? Notsomuch - at least for now.

Movies are about distribution - the more theatres the more profit. There's a point, where theatres are over-leveraged on new equipment. That time is coming soon. What that means is that despite a film being downloadable to a given movie house, if the movie house can't afford the new equipment they will need to see the film, the film won't show - or it will show in its old format.

That means: expect the small houses to dry up, and your massive cineplexes to be consolidated (yeah, the big ones will close unprofitable branches and funnel people to upgraded theatres). Expect ticket prices to go up again, and expect the movies to be an event in the same manner that going to a concert and a professional sports game has become: it will be an event for only the affluent.

So yeah, the studios won't shoot themselves in the foot and leave money on the table. As such, they'll push for this, but it will be a long and slow adoption practice - big markets first, and very very slowly it will expand... but there won't be a lightswitch that ends film. It will be a slow and painful death (and rebirth into arthouses - where you too can watch Escape from New York.).
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:30 AM on September 28, 2011


Then i moved to LaCrosse, WI, which had smaller ones, but the thing that bugged me there was that they were near downtown, and frequented by drunks, who would not shut up.

This link is a little older but it addresses this point.
posted by Rykey at 7:35 AM on September 28, 2011


4k may be good enough for 35mm prints, but what about 70mm? Granted few and far between. Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, West Side Story to name a few.
posted by Gungho at 7:44 AM on September 28, 2011


I've seen some pretty terrible looking 35mm from 30 years ago.
posted by smackfu at 7:46 AM on September 28, 2011


what about 70mm?

According to some anecdotal reports, digital projection is getting there:
So, with that, we went in. There was a Sony T420 projector (same as we have at RED Studios) in a grading room at Colorworks. We talked to "The Steve" (colorist) about his experience with the EPIC footage and opinion. He confirmed his opinion matched John's and we sat front row with huge expectations.

The consensus in the room (to a person) was that this looked like film. Like 65mm film. Better. Without any trace of film's blocky detail in shadows or grain. Jaw dropping.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 7:54 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Slap*Happy - I really want to live in that world. But everything I've seen in my life thus far says that the people who control the content will find some way to prevent that from happening.
posted by Sandor Clegane at 7:55 AM on September 28, 2011


I was amused by the link about how Technicolor cut back and merged with another lab in NYC, at the same time they're building a new film processing facility in LA, to cope with IMAX demand.

That's the biggest problem with IMAX, the films move so fast through the projector that the prints wear out very quickly. A typical run of a film will require several replacements of the extremely large 70MM prints. I once heard from a film tech how many runs you can show an IMAX film before the print is too worn to use, I don't recall the exact figure now but I was horrified. And these are HUGE reels of film since the frames run longitudinally rather than horizontally.

This is one of the biggest costs of IMAX theaters. My local theater went out of business, I am sure it is partly due to the huge costs of running films every day to smaller audiences that don't make a profit, between sold-out first run theatrical titles.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:05 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I also think that digital film looks cold -- it just looks and feels flat. Still, at the end of the day, if the movie itself is great, I can usually stop caring whether it's digital or not.

I'm a film archivist, so I think about this stuff every day. I also hang out with a lot of tech-industry nerds, and it's funny to hear from both sides about the various merits and shortcomings of digital. Most non-archivist folks seem to think, well, you should put it all on digital and you're set! But it takes too long to explain why that's not a great idea.

Anyway, I'm firmly for the argument that film that was born on film should stay and be seen on film. There's just nothing like it, if you care about these things. And I hope IMAX sticks around for a long time, because that's pretty the best film format ever.
posted by estherbester at 9:26 AM on September 28, 2011


Everything has to survive, everything has to be seen 500 years from now, 1000 years from now.

I can think of many, many exceptions to that rule.


If people start talking trash about Flash Gordan again, I'm going to start throwing punches I SWEAH TO GAWD
posted by FatherDagon at 10:03 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't really get why this would be bad for small cinemas. It seems like the equipment to show digital would be cheaper, require a lot less maintenance and give them a much, much broader base of films they can show, including live events and so on.
posted by delmoi at 12:01 PM on September 28, 2011


This means these classic movies will be cheap and easy to show on the big screen - and it will be a market that small and independent cinemas will have entirely to themselves.

In a sense, perhaps. But people watch movies on their phones these days. I'm not sure the glory days of cinema are really coming back.
posted by dhartung at 12:19 PM on September 28, 2011


That's the biggest problem with IMAX, the films move so fast through the projector that the prints wear out very quickly.

I'm pretty sure the opposite is true. IMAX projectors use a "rolling loop" which reduces the overall tension on the print and is actually gentler on the film than a traditional pull-down projector. It might be a different story for the small-scale IMAX systems (such as MPX) which unfortunately cropped up in the last decade or two, but the "real" full-blown IMAX GT system was and still is vastly gentler on film than anything that has come before.

A typical run of a film will require several replacements of the extremely large 70MM prints.

Again, I think this is highly questionable. IMAX has gotten away from this in the past decade or two, but the traditional core market was long-running educational shows at museums and similar venues. In many cases there were individual prints that ran multiple times a day for years without any damage. Many such venues had a glass wall around the projection booth where you could see right in and watch everything working. The thing that always struck me about such setups was that the entire system was kept laboratory-clean and seemed to run smooth as silk. The Hackworth IMAX Dome at the Tech museum in San Jose, CA is one such venue.

I once heard from a film tech how many runs you can show an IMAX film before the print is too worn to use, I don't recall the exact figure now but I was horrified.

I really have a hard time believing this. Go over to Film-Tech forums and dig through some of the older posts in the "large format" forum. These are posts by people who actually work in these booths every day and know the actual working characteristics of these systems. The story has always been very consistent that IMAX is extremely reliable and surprisingly gentle on the film. Again, the relatively new MPX systems may have changed this somewhat, but that's the conventional wisdom.

My local theater went out of business, I am sure it is partly due to the huge costs of running films every day to smaller audiences that don't make a profit, between sold-out first run theatrical titles.

Just to clarify, theaters typically only pay a rental fee which they still have to pay with digital. The cost of actually printing & shipping film lies with the distributor, not the theater. That's the biggest economic reason why digital conversion has been slow but which rarely gets mentioned: theaters don't directly economically benefit from it; the entities further up the chain do. But theaters are the ones who have to pay for the cost of installing the new equipment even though they enjoy little-to-none of the direct savings. That more than any other reason is why large scale conversion has been a very slow process, not fear of change or any of the other reasons given in the quotes above. The only things that have succesfully broken this deadlock have been financial incentives from studios and distributors to share the costs with the theater chains, as well as the need to support 3D.
posted by Potsy at 1:09 PM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


The cost of actually printing & shipping film lies with the distributor, not the theater

The costs of making prints is always on the distributor (or the film archive) and the cost of the rental is always on the theater - but there is a notable exception to the shipping thing: venues who regularly show older films (like the Music Box or the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago) pay shipping themselves - which, these days, often costs about as much as the print rental. Film archives are better about this - some of them, like the Library of Congress, don't even charage a rental fee. But unless it's in the public domain the theater still has to pay the rightsholder for the rights. And even showing just PD titles from archives won't save many small theaters who don't convert now, because film archives naturally have very strict standards about projection equipment and film handling which can be difficult for small theaters to fulfill.
posted by bubukaba at 1:22 PM on September 28, 2011


When it comes to film preservation and restoration of old films shot on film I don't see any way the restoration part will change. The original camera negative will usually be the default for striking new film prints. One could then strike a digitial copy from a film print after it is restored. And one could, obviously, then use that digital copy to project the film or make a HD print for DVD / Blu-ray. But so long as the film exists in some form [a negative or a positive print] the film will always be the one a preservationist works from.

As far as distributors and theaters are concerned everything is going digital. That much is obvious. I would imagine, however, a good number of museums or archives will try to continue to project film. But if the costs are too great and digital is all they can afford then I would rather be able to at least see the film digitally projected then not at all.
posted by Rashomon at 2:08 PM on September 28, 2011


IMAX projectors use a "rolling loop" which reduces the overall tension on the print and is actually gentler on the film than a traditional pull-down projector.

Well, I heard this from some Technicolor techs, they said the rolling loop is mandatory because the film moves so fast, it wouldn't even make it through the system once without shredding unless they took extreme measures to avoid it. The rolling loops reduce tension on the film, there's no way to feed directly from the spool, it would be impossible to maintain proper tension at the speeds the film runs. The downside is that the loops put more friction on the film so it gets scratched and worn more quickly. They also claimed sprocket holes wore out or broke frequently. They said this was a well known problem with the format, but prints wearing out quickly was the price you paid for using such a big format. And of course Technicolor worked hard to promote IMAX because they made a ton of money making so many prints.

Well this was secondhand info but since it was some techs griping about the problems in their format that wouldn't really be in their best interest to expose, I tend to believe them. Maybe we can get someone directly involved to confirm or deny.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:02 PM on September 28, 2011


The cost of actually printing & shipping film lies with the distributor, not the theater.


The distributor makes you pay through the nose for stuff that isn't 1st or 2nd run. It's vastly cheaper to secure a license to show a blu-ray in public... digital distribution of 4k-quality movies takes the hassle of maintaining, shipping, and repairing mylar or celluloid out of the equation, while increasing the profit as once out-of-print films can now be easily leased.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:32 PM on September 28, 2011


It's vastly cheaper to secure a license to show a blu-ray in public

This is not true of the vast majority of distributors, in my experience at least (though there's one that will give you a discount if there's no print available and they have to send you a blu-ray, by way of apology for providing an inferior product). That's part of what I've found especially galling about the digital transition, actually. Paying the same for booking a blu-ray as I do for booking a decent 35mm print feels like a rip-off. Though it makes sense, in a way, since all you're actually paying for (in all except a few peculiar circumstances) is the right to show the film, not the physical rental of the film.
posted by bubukaba at 10:49 PM on September 28, 2011


I actually don't mind films being shot digitally, I kind of like the look. But digital projection bothers me. There is a certain luminous quality that film projection has that digital does not. It might be sharper, but there is something missing in the whites. They look all fucked up in digital projection. Like you can see individual white pixels or something.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:14 AM on September 29, 2011


Have you ever seen a black and white film projected? Not a black and white image printed on colour stock but an actual black and white production projected from a black and white print.

Beautiful. There was a reason why they called it the 'silver screen'.
posted by run"monty at 3:10 PM on October 2, 2011


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