Film vs. Digital: Why everyone loses


If you follow me outside of Flixist, you no doubt saw an article I linked to yesterday from LA Weekly. The article detailed the decline of widespread industry use of 35mm film and forcing digital into the lives of flimmakers everywhere. At six pages, it’s lengthy, but I suggest everyone to read it. Now, I’ve gone on record many times with my opinion (film, digital, it all rules!) on this matter, but I never really branched out to hear what other directors had to say.

For the most part, it’s what I expected. But after reading the article in full, it became clear that the ramifications of this digital transition affect everyone.

Before we get on with the meat of this article, let’s get the obvious statements out of the way. Shooting film isn’t automatically better than shooting digital, and vice versa. There will always be tradeoffs, and you need to understand that now. Film is a proven worldwide standard for over 100 years, and benefits from a better looking final product. Digital will always be cheaper, more portable, and easier for most folks to work with. I suggest reading this article to further understand the pros and cons of each medium.

Okay, are we all caught up? Brilliant. Let’s get started.

Now, this article isn’t just about shooting on one medium over another. It’s about the ramifications of technological advancements made over the course of twenty years, and how that’s going to trickle down to us, the consumer cinephile. It wasn’t long ago that movies were always printed on film. Even all digital productions like Toy Story, or Antz were always printed on 35mm film for exhibition at your local theatre. This is because digital technology hadn’t reached a level high enough to broadcast the incredible high-quality images we’ve become used to. But then came George Lucas with his crazy idea of shooting a movie all using a digital video camera. “It’ll look like shit, George,” I hope someone said to him. But you know what? For all it’s mistakes as a piece of canon, Attack of the Clones is a great looking picture. Now, that may be due to the fact Lucas made everything digital, including the sets. But Lucas realized the limitations of digital and made it work for him. “Good for you, George!” we all heralded. But little did we know that this was the beginning of the end. And not just for Star Wars.

Since then, an abnormally high number of independently shot digital features sprung up, with 28 Days Later leading the pack. The industry took a step back and asked themselves, “Why can’t we do this digital thing?” And so they did. Since 2003, every major motion picture studio has slowly but surely pushed the change over to digital filmmaking. Citing cheaper budgets, saving time on set, and easier post production, it seemed almost like a win-win. But, as always, the technology just wasn’t there. Sure, you could shoot digitally cheap, but your end product looks cheap. At the end of the day, filmmakers still preferred the look and quality that film brought to the table. However, there were a few hold-outs. My old friend James Cameron being the most vocal about it.

Now, we all know the rest of this story. Cameron shot Avatar all-digitally using green screens out the wazoo and a new way of capturing facial expressions. The hype train gets started, Cameron demands all theatres upgrade their projection equipment, and th-Hey, wait a second. Hold on now. A filmmaker was not only able to demand that his movie be shown digitally, but theatre owners actually paid money to upgrade their equipment? Sadly, that’s exactly what happened.

Want to know the cost of upgrading your theatre to fancy schmancy digital projection? Anywhere between $70,000 to $150,000. Per screen. Seems a bit steep, right? Well, your good friends at the Movie Studios™ will help you out! Since they’re not making film prints and shipping them out to theatres (around a $1,500 job per print), and instead putting movies on a drive (a measly $125/drive), the studios will help finance the projection system to play their films. Seems about right.

So where does that leave the independent theatres? The little one or two screeners with loads of history and character, and show movies ranging from classics, to the obscure? To put it bluntly, they’re fucked. A small independent theatre doesn’t make enough money in a year to upgrade their systems to an all digital platform. “Wait a minute,” you ask, “isn’t that only for new releases? Why should the indie theatres care at all?” Glad you asked, reader. Studios are making it harder every day to rent out a print of an older film. Sometimes, it just won’t happen. 

See, after a film is shot, the studio keeps the master for records purposes, as well as historical reasons. Well, sometimes. Remember when MGM was going to dump it’s original nitrate prints of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz into the ocean? Thankfully, archives such as the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film & Television Archive took the prints off of the studio’s hands for proper preservation. Now, it’s said that, if taken care of properly, film can be preserved for hundreds of years. Digital files, on the other hand, have a hard time staying on a hard drive for a couple months. Besides, human error will always find a way to intervine and accidentally delete a file. Or what if the file type the movie is at suddenly becomes irrelevant? Happens all the time! Or what if the hard drive’s interface won’t work with a modern computer? Well, you’re out of luck, basically.

The issue I have with digital isn’t that it’s not as good looking as film, or whatever. It’s the preservation of the movie. It’s the fact that, no matter how hard we try, studios will find ways to not allow you to see a film the way it was meant to be seen. The fact that indie theatres are willing to pay for exhibition rights to an old 35mm film that’s probably rotting away in some salt mine but deny them the rights sickens me. Hell, some studios won’t rent out a print of a film that hasn’t even seen the inside of a projector for 40 years, let alone a DVD release. This is how anti-film these studios have become.

Now, this is the part of the article where I ask you to join me in a fight against the establishment. But sadly, there’s not a whole lot we can do. Obviously, go support your local indie theatre. Heck, I’d tell you to do that in a normal news post. But this fight is going to be a tough one to win. Maybe we should march outside studio gates demanding action be took. Or maybe we should organize a letter writing campaign, similar to Operation: Rainfall. If you guys have any good ideas, be sure to leave them in the comments.