Features & Columns

Digital Killed the Celluloid Star

Digital projection is here to stay, but what are we giving up when we abandon a century of celluloid?
Sara Maria Vizcarrando COPING WITH CHANGE: Local film critic and De Anza College teacher Sara Maria Vizcarrando knows that digital film has surpassed 35mm, but she laments the cold perfection of the new technology. Photograph by Dave Lepori

Two ways to view a monster: For Halloween, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) showed in two formats in the valley. On Oct. 24, the pair of poetic horror films screened at a TCM/Fathom Events program in various local theaters with digital projection. The two classics were also unspooled in the age-old 35mm film format at the historic Stanford Theatre.

It was a choice for the consumer. The digital simulcast came with an extra: TCM's Robert Osborne interviewing Bela Lugosi Jr. and Boris Karloff's daughter, Sara. At the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, the classic picture-palace surroundings imparted more of the atmosphere that we expect for Halloween.

When it comes to seeing an old classic, would the public have preferred to turn up for what sounds more now? Cyndi Mortensen of the Stanford Theatre says, "The public has been educated to think that digital is better. They do not know or appreciate the difference between a digital screening and a film screening. So they would be more likely to take their business to a venue showing the digital restored version, rather than an original print."

The Ages of Film

We ended up in the middle of the third great age of cinema before anyone noticed. Robert Sklar, the film historian who died last year, proposed the three ages: first silent, then sound, now digital.

The National Organization of Theater Owners recently claimed that 64 percent of the theaters in America use digital projection. The L.A.-based consulting firm MKPE says that 85 percent of America's theaters will have digital projectors by the end of 2012. Worldwide, that figure is approaching 70 percent.

Camera 12 in downtown San Jose has already traded in most of its traditional film projectors for the new push-button technology that allows movies to be piped in without friction and screened in seemingly flawless images.

Ron Regalia of the Camera Cinemas notes that both the Camera 12 and the Camera 7 are all digital, though one screen in each theater has a side-by-side 35mm projector. Camera 3 is still 35mm, though there's a portable Blu-Ray projector available.

"Digital projection has made life easier in many ways," Regalia says. "No scratched, damaged or missing prints, fewer labor hours, no physical print and trailer build-up. We can start and monitor all shows from a central terminal." Films can be switched to different theaters with a simple command.

And Regalia is happy with the picture quality. "It's as good if not better than 35mm—this coming from a person who used to argue the opposite. More importantly, it is consistently good. And digital wins hands-down on sound."

In five or 10 years, a large segment of the audience will never have seen a motion picture projected from a reel of film. Film is already an obsolete technology, and few are fighting to save it.

Warner Bros. is refusing to loan out 35mm prints; 20th Century-Fox will offer only digital prints by next year. Kodak is in bankruptcy. Last month, Fuji ceased orders for motion picture film stock.

There's nothing like the Stanford Theatre anywhere else in the valley, or most of the world, for that matter. Mortensen calls the rise of digital "a major concern for us." Presently, the revival house has no plans to go digital for its projection. "But it may be that some day we will not have this option," Motensen adds.

Currently, the Stanford Theatre can still get 35mm prints, says Mortensen: "We do not have a problem getting prints from the archives, thankfully, nor from the studios, if they have a print. They're doing their best to see to our needs."

As the studios release much-trumpeted "digital restorations," however, they don't typically put them on film stock.

Mortensen notes, "It is conceivable that one day the only way a person will view actual film will be in an archive, or at the Stanford and maybe one or two other rep houses. The only way to see the new digitally restored product is via digital [projection] equipment. And the studios want this new product to be seen, rather than an older print."

Thus studios have more financial impetus to make movies on film unavailable. They say their hands are tied on the grounds that film stock is being phased out. Ultimately, it may be that all the movie-going public really knows is that the word "digital" sounds really cool and pristine.

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