In an article headlined, somewhat alarmingly, ‘Death of film’, VentureBeat reports that Paramount has gone to all-digital distribution to cinemas. What does that mean? I don’t know. But the author Devindra Hardawar considers the decision significant. He writes:
Theater-goers likely won’t notice the shift much, but the move to all-digital film distribution is something cinephiles have been dreading for some time. While it’s significantly cheaper for studios to send movies to theaters digitally –a film print could cost up to $2,000, while a digital copy of a film on a hard drive is closer to $100 — film fans argue that digital projection lacks the warmth and quality of 35 millimeter film.
But the difference in quality between film and digital projection is quickly diminishing, which means it’s only inevitable until every studio goes digital. With more than 1,000 theaters in the U.S. still without digital equipment (and the cost of new digital projectors around $70,000), the shift could end up killing off smaller theaters throughout the country.
As a movie fan (and someone who’s been reviewing films for years), I can’t help but tear up a little at this news.
Having recently starting going to the pictures again I’m wondering what impact this will have on UK theatres – specifically, the heavy ceremony associated with filmgoing. ‘Cinema is most totalitarian of the arts,’ Jim Morrison said, and he was exaggerating, but yeah, the enormous black screen, the old-style plush curtains, the dimmed lights, the hush and pomp of it all – no wonder this is the favoured medium to project every dictator’s Ozymandian fantasies. (North Korean despot Kim jong-Il famously kidnapped a South Korean director, forcing him to churn out 35mm regime propaganda, including ‘Pulgasari, a communist version of Godzilla’; the BBC’s report also notes that ‘Kim was also said to have been a fan of Ealing comedies, inspired by their emphasis on team spirit and a mobilised proletariat.’)
My second point is more prosaic: the amount of adverts and trailers before the main picture. Netflix and Sky Plus have rendered the cinema one of the last captive market for advertisers, so you have to sit through reels of bumf before the film even starts – and to a time-neurotic like me, that can be a dealbreaker. And not just adverts. Last year we saw a screening of the original Psycho. This was preceded by ten minutes of period commercial, presumably for comedy value (to paraphrase Stewart Lee: ‘Look, people who lived several decades ago had different fashions and customs, which look ridiculous in retrospect’) and also a lecture, from a local residents’ association figure, on a proposed transport development in the area. The RA person was opposed to this development, and said so, at length.
My girlfriend lived for several years in the States.
‘If this was a Pennsylvania theatre, they’d be throwing things around now,’ she whispered.
Another problem is that film has succumbed to the modern mania for galloping longevity of performance. It seems that even a standard Apatow high school comedy merits at least two hours of screen time: Peter Jackson’s fantasy epics go on for days. Fleur MacDonald has it right:
When it comes to length, you can’t help but feel sorry for filmmakers. They have to squeeze the life of some statesman or gangster (the biopic of Ronnie Biggs must be mulling somewhere) into a two hour sprint while competing with the slow burn character development of The Wire, House of Cards… people might moan about the impact of Twitter and Vine and blogs on our memory but great storytellers have always known that we have the attention span of gnats. And have had respect for their audience’s time.
And yet the theater, particularly the independent cinema, is still magical in the culture. Trapped in post-apocalyptic snowblown badlands of The Stand, Stephen King’s protagonist Stu Redman takes great time and effort to rig up a generator in an abandoned cinema, so that he and his travelling companion Tom Cullen can watch old reels of Oliver and Rocky, as they were meant to be seen. The mid-century American poet Frank O’Hara explicitly praised film over ‘lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals’:
In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love. And give credit where it’s due: not to my starched nurse, who taught me how to be bad and not bad rather than good (and has lately availed herself of this information), not to the Catholic Church which is at best an oversolemn introduction to cosmic entertainment, not to the American Legion, which hates everybody, but to you, glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope, stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound, with all your heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms!
So, yeah – let’s hope that the Arts Council does provide some independent digital funding. Even I have to admit that watching The Shining on a stuttery 2010 Dell wouldn’t be quite the same thing.