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The End of an Era

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By Gordon Meyer
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Yesterday, 20th Century Fox announced that, as of January 1, 2012, they would no longer supply 35mm prints to theatres in Hong Kong and Macau, shifting exclusively to the digital cinema format.  From a business/bottom line perspective, I can absolutely understand this.  After all, the cost of a digital “virtual print” is pennies on the dollar compared to 12,000-15,000 feet of 35mm film for most features plus shipping.  And with the quality of today’s digital cinema projectors, not only is the picture pristine, it stays that way through the entire run of the movie since there’s physical print to get scratched up from hundreds of runs through a projector that may or may not even be properly maintained.   I get it.

Still, allow me to wax a bit nostalgic here.  Film has been the standard medium for projection for over a century.  During interviews with even the most ardent supporters of digital technology, the consensus remains that film is still the “Gold Standard” when it comes to image quality and durability.   OK, admittedly the instability of early Eastmancolor dyes have resulted in thousands of titles fading to pink.  Still, properly stored, even these prints are reportedly much better for archival purposes than their digital counterparts.  Why?

First of all, there’s the whole analog vs. digital argument that’s been going in with both consumers and pros since the introduction of the compact disc in the early 1980s, with most people perceiving warmer, more “natural” colors and imagery when the movie is shot and projected on film.  As for the purpose of an archive, digital storage formats come and go, requiring constant transferring of assets to the new storage formats.  Otherwise, you risk having your archive for posterity stored in an obsolete technology that nobody can access.  Kind of defeats the purpose of archiving, doesn’t it.  Film, on the other hand, is a century old standard.  Even if the time comes when film completely goes away (and I hope that time never comes), you can still use film prints by scanning the frames and optical tracks.

Now on a purely sentimental basis, I have to also say that, even though most of the time these days when I see movies in theatres or screening rooms, I see digital prints, it puts a smile on my face to see those circular cue marks in the upper right corner of the screen every 20 minutes, reminding me of the glory of analog 35mm motion picture film – and better yet, 70mm film, the ultra HD format of its time.

Fox’s decision to supply only DCI virtual prints to the Hong Kong and Macau markets is just the beginning.  As more and more of the world’s theatres convert to digital, we’ll see fewer and fewer 35mm screens.  And while I’m far from being a luddite, there’s something almost subliminal, but none the less very real, about the quality of 35mm film that digital is not likely to duplicate.

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