Good Riddance To Movie Prints

Well, it’s about time. After more than a hundred years of faithful service, 35mm prints seem destined to go the way of the dodo bird, and I for one am glad. Who needs those pesky, perforated pieces of film anyway?

Actual 35mm frames from Can-Can with Maurice Chevalier, Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra.

Movie studios are pressuring exhibitors large and small to hop on the bandwagon and purchase digital equipment to replace their sturdy 35mm projectors. That will save the studios a lot of money producing and shipping prints. This trend away from film has already put some venerable labs out of business, on both coasts, but nobody really cared about them, anyway… especially independent filmmakers, cinema students, and archives.

Better yet, the likely disappearance of physical prints is driving the last remaining independent theater owners to shut down. This includes rural, second-run, repertory and bargain-priced operations. Remember that article The New York Times ran last year about community-run theaters who cater to the local family trade? They probably won’t be able to survive. (This isn’t just Chicken Little scare talk; I have one friend who’s closing his neighborhood theater because he can’t afford to sink 75-100 grand into digital equipment. A recent Los Angeles Times story quoted others who are in the same boat.) But we don’t need those one-screen theaters when we can stream movies online, right?

Today’s business is all about the big boys, whether it’s the studios who release movies every weekend that people don’t want to see or the giant theater chains who don’t care about indie, foreign or documentary films. I feel comfortable leaving my fate as a moviegoer in the hands of these folks, don’t you?

But seriously…

I know that change is inevitable, and digital projection has certainly proven itself. But does that mean that 35mm is obsolete? Film has a distinctive look—especially older film—and I would hate to lose that. In the music world, vinyl albums are making a comeback, not just because they seem cool to a new generation, but because audiophiles know they actually sound better than CDs or MP3 files. The movie business has never been known for taking the long view, but once those 35mm projectors are tossed onto the scrap heap, it will be difficult to—

—bring them back. The leading manufacturer of parts has already thrown in the towel.

Movie theaters have played a vital role in my life, and I don’t want to see them disappear. Some people think digital cinema will keep them alive; that remains to be seen, but I’m wary of any trend that is driven by greed and short-term gain. And I mourn for the possible loss of the movie experience as we’ve known it. No one who has ever seen a great 35mm print of a classic film projected on a big screen is likely to forget it. (If you’ve ever seen an old nitrate print, it positively glistens.) A careful, digital restoration can definitely hold its own against a projected print, but that requires TLC at every stage, or a 1930s movie can be made to look like a piece of 21st century video.

Would anyone suggest that the Metropolitan Museum of Art take down its precious paintings, which fade in the light, and replace them with high-quality digital copies? I doubt the George Eastman House or Getty Museum are going to substitute digital replicas for their silver gelatin prints of photographs by Edward S. Curtis or Ansel Adams. In that same vein, it seems as if the only place we’ll be able to watch films in 35mm after a certain point will be museums and archives. Thank goodness they exist, or the next generation will never know what it’s like to watch actual film on a screen.

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May 2024