In college, I landed a job as a student technician at my university’s Student Center. That building housed the only movie theater on campus. The theater was stocked with two 40 year old 35mm projectors. The projectors ran on the classic reel-to-reel system and showed movies four nights a week.
I signed up to earn my projectionist training. I learned how to receive, build, show and breakdown 35mm flicks for four years before I left. When I graduated, I earned a full time position with the Student Center and managed the theater for a few years more.
Now, 35mm is slowly being phased out of theaters around the world as the digital age takes over one more space. The problem? 35mm film is a beautiful, artistic, simplistic, powerful and affordable medium that shouldn’t be replaced.
“But, digital looks better.” Get off my lawn!
At some point in my argument about why 35mm film’s disappearance is a depressing problem, I’m almost positive that all of the younger readers among us will be thinking the same thing: “Digital just looks better.”
Yes, I’ll agree, digital projection absolutely looks “better” than that of 35mm. The shots are clean, the film stutter is absent and the footage onscreen looks near-perfect. However, that’s where I’ll argue that the major problems begin.
Going to the movies is, for so many of the older generation, an event. It’s a feeling, it’s a sound, it’s a smell and, most importantly, it’s a flicker.
Film moves through 35mm projectors at a very distinct speed. Essentially, and this is very basic film tech, the human eye perceives natural motion when still images move past our sight at 24 frames every second. That’s what happens during a 35mm showing. Film is recorded at 24 FPS, and film is shown to consumers at 24 FPS. Each frame of color is separated by an equal frame of black, which is caused by the shutter on the projector opening and closing at that standard rate. Any slower, and motion becomes unnatural as the eye detects the stop in light.
Digital imagery is near seemless. While that might make for a clean, flicker-less presentation, it removes the effect inherent with movie theater style projection. Going to the movies no longer feels like going to the movies. It feels like sitting directly in front of a really big television.
The shutter sound is gone, the offscreen flicker of light is gone and the feeling of “movie” has all but disappeared.
35mm showings are an event. Digital projection feels almost artificial.
The lie about saving money.
The transition from 35mm to digital is based entirely on the concept of saving money. It costs studios hundreds of millions of dollars every year to print and ship enough films to stock American cinemas. They’ve, apparently, had enough of that “unecessary” cost and are ditching the analog model in favor of digital formats.
If you’re a regular reader of this tech blog, then you likely already know how digital distribution happens. Films are sent as digital files, downloaded to hard drives and played on projectors. It’s that simple, and, in essence, it’s a cheap and easy alternative to physical film.
The issue is that it costs a lot more to switch over to the digital format for theaters; hundreds of thousands for each projector, in fact. Studios are soon to abandon 35mm film for good, so if theaters want to stay in business, they’ll have no choice but to change their projection formats. It’s too bad that not every theater will be able to afford the costs it requires to make the switch.
Ticket and concession prices will continue to climb once these switches become mandatory. The theaters that can’t afford the change will shut down. As other theaters ditch 35mm and spend millions on new equipment, patrons will feel the “upgrade” the most. I’m not even that old, but I can remember matinees costing $2.50. Now? Nothing in the entire building costs $2.50. I took my wife to The Dark Knight Rises and spent well over $30 on nothing but tickets and popcorn. My theater recently made the switch from 35mm to digital.
It won’t stop there.
You’d think that once the theaters overcame the cost of purchasing and installing the brand new hardware, movies would become cheaper. Well, nope.
I managed the movie theater in the Student Centers that I mentioned at the head of this story. Before I left that job for good, my 35mm maintenance guy came in for his annual inspection. We got to talking about the switch to digital, and he explained that these theaters are about to be hurt a whole heck of a lot more.
When something breaks in a 35mm projector, it’s very easy to replace. The whole thing is a mechanism-based machine, so that means finding and isolating the cause of a breakdown is exceptionally simple. Find the single part, switch it and move on.
As my former tech explained, digital projection is different. Isolating problems is a lot more difficult, and replacing broken parts can be very complicated. For instance, if a bulb bursts (which happens) and sprays glass around the interior of a 35mm projector, the solution is cleaning out the glass and replacing the light source (the bulbs cost around $500). For a digital projector, the odds of that bulb shattering and damaging a whole lot of parts in its wake are significantly higher. The $500 replacement tag can grow at an exponential rate, and theaters will have to eat the cost.
Because a busted bulb was so easy to replace in a 35mm projector, our theater used to put off installing new bulbs until four or five times the recommended amount of time. That meant we were saving something like $2,000 dollars with each aging bulb. With the fear of a broken bulb ruining the interiors of digital projectors, theaters will have to abandon the delayed maintenance practices. That $2,000 savings will be scrapped from each projector and consumers will pay the difference.
You can spread that logic to every single working part of the projector, too. Movies will become deceptively more expensive with the coming of the digital era.
The disappearance of 35mm also means the disappearance of an art form.
For projectionists, showing films goes from a delicate operation centered around timing, dedication, patience and safety to a mindless job of drag and drop. Want an appreciation of what it means to be a 35mm projectionist? Watch Cinema Paradiso, the beautiful Italian flick from the late 80s that captured what it means to show films so perfectly.
For film makers, shooting will become significantly less orchestrated. With physical film, making movies actually meant using up money in order to shoot. The film actually passed through the camera and became physically spent during each and every shot. That meant takes were on a much more strict budget and required a lot more planning and direction. In the digital age, that requirement flies out the window and the mastery of the craft is no longer needed.
Digital film all but removes the physical, human touch of “the movies.” Watching it takeover while 35mm fades away is devastating.
The theater I used to work for? They just switched to digital.
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