Movies have been shown in theaters on actual film since the beginning of the format, but this year could very well be the last that we get to experience new films on 35mm. It has been reported that Paramount is ending distribution on celluloid, with Anchorman 2 being their last film print release -- instead releasing all new movies digitally. What does this mean for the rest of the industry, and who is going to get left behind in the process?
Here is more from the LA Times post outlining the situation:
The reticence reflects the fact that no studio wants to be seen as the first to abandon film, which retains a cachet among some filmmakers. Some studios may also be reluctant to give up box-office revenue by bypassing theaters that can show only film. About 8% of U.S. movie theater screens are equipped to show movies only on film.
In addition to relying on digital hard drives, theaters are installing satellite systems to digitally beam movies into cinemas. That could significantly lower the cost of delivering a single print, to less than $100 from as much $2,000.
Digital technology also enables cinemas to screen higher-priced 3-D films and makes it easier for them to book and program entertainment.
As a result, large chains have moved quickly to embrace digital technology: Ninety-two percent of 40,045 screens in the U.S. have converted to digital, according to the National Assn. of Theatre Owners.
While some of the 8% of screens are in theaters that only play older films, many are simply smaller independent businesses that haven't been able to afford to convert some or all of their screens to digital. With Paramount now going digital-only, the rest of the big studios are likely not far behind. This means that these smaller theaters are going to have to change over in the near future or they're going to get left behind. Some of these theaters have gone to Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platforms to get the necessary funds to convert their system to digital (which includes projectors and servers), and we've supported a number of them on No Film School, like The Brattle Theatre, Cinefamily, and The Bijou Art Cinema.
So are these independent theaters run poorly? Why can't they afford to upgrade? As it turns out, the larger chain cinemas have been given a subsidy to better afford the digital upgrades. Here is Edward Schiessl, owner of the Bijou Art Cinema, to explain:
Just in recent years, the major distributors decided to make a push to transition to digital, which is sort of them externalizing their costs, because traditionally they would print, like, 3,000 copies of a popular 35mm film. It goes on 3,000 screens and then they trash prints — just throw them away, because after that initial break, it’s never going to be on more than a few screens again. So, it’s this huge waste, considering that every 35mm film print is about 2 miles of film and takes all these toxic chemicals and precious metals. It can cost them anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars per print.
So, they were looking for a way to cheapen their distribution circuit, and the way that they decided to do that was to create a set of standards for digital cinema projection. Basically, the largest distributors, like Fox, Sony, Universal, Warner Brothers, and Paramount, got together with the largest exhibitors, like Regal, Cinemark, and AMC, and decided on this set of standards. They set up deals called “virtual print fees” where those larger companies could sign on and get a $1,000 kickback every time they play a digital movie. However, those don’t work for smaller exhibitors like us. We can’t sign onto those, and if we did, we’d be boxed into playing certain films from certain distributors. So, essentially small theaters and small distributors are out of the loop and this became a huge cost to both of us, while the biggest players were essentially getting it paid for.
The larger theaters have been able to upgrade far more quickly thanks to the Virtual Print Fee, or VPF, and the studios have saved a ton of cash on film prints in the process. The only loser in this deal are the smaller theaters, who didn't benefit from the VPF.
Many are nostalgic for showing movies on film, and while I would be on their side up to a point, there is no question that digital projection -- when shown at the proper brightness -- is superior to film projection. But don't take my word for it, director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson of the 4K-distributed, 65mm-shot Samsara found digital projection to be superior:
We have chosen to output SAMSARA to DCP for digital projection rather than creating 70mm film prints this time. There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is we believe a digital output from the high res scan of our film negative yields the best possible viewing experience. It is a combination of using a 50-year-old camera system and cutting-edge digital technology that works for our kind of filmmaking. When we produced the Baraka Blu-ray in 2008, we were amazed at the level of detail that we obtained by undertaking an arduous, frame-by-frame, high-resolution scanning process at 8K resolution on Fotokem’s renowned Bigfoot scanner. The 8K file for the whole film came in at a massive size, in excess of 30 Terabytes. Dropping the output down to Blu-ray resolution, we were able to retain a level of detail that was beyond our wildest expectations, and the Baraka Blu-ray has been widely regarded as a reference-point disc for home viewing. It became clear that the benefits of capturing high-resolution imagery on the large 65mm negative were embedded in the digital file.
So if Anchorman 2 is the final film print release, what's the first all-digital release for Paramount? That would be Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street. If you'd told him 10 years ago that one of his films was only going to be shown digitally, he might not have believed you -- but here we are.
Only time will tell how quickly the studios move away from print releases, but one thing is for sure: the indie theaters will absolutely be on the short end of the stick.