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Good Riddance To Movie Prints

by Leonard Maltin
May 2, 2011 4:30 AM
23 Comments
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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 But does that mean that 35mm is obsolete?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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23 Comments

  • Victor Petrucci | November 30, 2012 11:53 PMReply

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  • Bob | November 21, 2011 8:16 PMReply

    I have been in the motion picture business since 1964 first as an usher at a large "Loews" theater, then a projectionist, assistant film editor, negative cutter, foley artist, moving on to be supervisor of a film cutting department with a staff of 20 people. Recently I have retired from the position of Manager of Technical Services at a major film laboratory and post production house which has facilities in Hollywood, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Rome, London and Sydney, and my reputation is known throughout the industry. The reason I have mentioned my past is to comment on the sad demise of film as an artform. It doesn't take much talent to sit at a console and manipulate supplied images from a digital camera by touching a keyboard and moving a mouse around, then downloading the file to a drive. But try and create special images on film by altering light sources, processing times, chemical by passes, temperature adjustments and playing with camera speeds. Adjusting silver content in the film and then actually cutting the film in a special way to get a piece of art to admire and cherish for decades. The digital realm is taking all of us down a video game world of cheaper to exhibit product that is created to flood the theaters for a couple of weekends at the box office, then to downloading on mobile computers or whatever else is in our future. The new digital world will never create a "Cassablanca" or "Lawrence of Arabia" or "The Godfather". Instead we'll get a barrage of special effects with little plot or emotion in films like "Avatar". That's what the "kids" want to see and that is where the studios will go. What's next up is creating virtual actors in the digital world so the studios won't have to pay an actor 12 million per picture. If you don't consider that as a possibility have you played any games lately and noticed how life like the main characters can appear. Have fun at the "Movie House" people.

  • Reg Hartt | July 30, 2011 2:45 AMReply

    I remember a screening of EASY RIDER I sponsored in the 1970's just a short time after the film's release. I booked it for a week. The 16mm print was choppy, scratched, torn, full of lines and had faded color.

    I got it replaced the next day and then found out the print I had started with was the best one.

    Digital prints don't fade, are easy to replace if the disc gets scratched (heck, we don't even need a disc) and offer much better sound.

    I was about to give up the ghost as I could not get my 16mm equipment properly serviced. Then I switched to digital.

    If the equipment is set right the results are first rate.

    I loan my digital projectors to friends who teach because the folks in charge of audio visual on the campuses either don't know how to set their projectors properly or do not care (Based on my own experience with colleges, schools and universities I suspect the latter).

    I now have contracts that allow me to screen almost every movie ever made. When I do I know I can give my audience something that does the film proud both in terms of picture and sound (the sound on 16mm was never very good).

    I do not miss 35mm nor 16mm.

    I had a friend who worked in a local film lab that produced prints for the world (he got the job because he had worked as my assistant projectionist).

    He found out the lab could only make four or five A level prints of a title.

    Digital allows the industry to create one really good print that can be duplicated without loss.

    That is a giant leap forward.

    Digital also allows us to see yesterday's great works in our homes at a price that won't bankrupt us.

    The other BIG bonus is not having to lug around heavy projectors and film cases.

    On more than one occasion in the past I have gone up to the projection booth to assist the projectionist who did not know that the garbled sound in the theater was because a worn print had come loose on the sound drum.

  • Albert | May 13, 2011 6:13 AMReply

    Sorry to say, but vinyl records are NOT making as much of a comeback as the media likes to publicize. My family and I are in the process of getting rid of things because we are about to move away from a house in which we have lived nearly 47 years, and nothing has been harder to give away than my old collection of 1,000 + albums, especially the classical music and the spoken word ones. I began using CD's in 1985, but I never bothered to get rid of any of my LP's, and nobody seems to want them. (Yes, we have tried libraries, and even our local NPR station, but so far, no luck. Some people are willing to take our LP's of rock music, but not our classical ones.)

  • Chuck Moran | May 12, 2011 3:50 AMReply

    Dear Leonard:

    Add me to the list of mourners who helplessly and sadly watch the theaters I frequent switch to digital. I can get digital at home. I can get 3D at home. I CAN'T get film at home. Why don't the movie theaters give me something I can't get at home? I'm sure eventually they will get the message. I mean, gee, isn't theater attendance DROPPING the last couple of years, threatening the entire industry? Why not go with Maxivision 48 instead of digital? It's still film - and I CAN'T get it at home. So much of my life has been spent in a movie theater and there are experiences I had in movie theaters I wouldn't trade for anything. I don't want that to die. I want the younger generations to know the experience, the anticipation, the line-standing, all those things that made going to the movies a great experience. Am I so WRONG?

  • Don Snyder | May 10, 2011 4:56 AMReply

    Leonard,
    I have been in the movie theatre business for sixty years. I just recently recieved the Life Achievement Award and just recently went all digital in this theatre.
    All of my wonderful 35mm projectors were taken out of the theatre and sent to a dollar theatre someplace. It is not the same without the sound of film clacking through the projectors. As luck would have it, they did leave one operational 35mm projector in the booth for me to cuddle. I do like the look of film on the screen. I find that this digital look is like looking at a big TV screen. I also discovered that digital projection has not been perfected. I can tear down any 35mm projectors and fix a problem before the audience even knows about it. That is impossable with a digital setup. It is easier to run a 3D movie, but 3D in the 1950's was much better than the 3D movies today. We sell more tickets to the 2D version because the 3D version is not very good. The first movie I ran in 3D in 1952 was "House Of Wax". That was a good ol' 35mm print that really was in 3D. I also ran the first Cinemascope movie, "The Robe." The Six track magnetic soundtrack was much better also than most of the movies today. I certainly hope that 35mm projection stays around and makes a big comeback like LP's are doing.

  • Joe | May 9, 2011 5:06 AMReply

    This is essentially another analog vs digital argument, all of which are essentially religious because what someone believes to be true always trumps any kind of evidence that could be presented either way.

    I do find it interesting that the "actual 35mm frames" from Can-Can look so bad, with the blue and green colors largely gone (It reminds me of old Eastmancolor prints - was the same process used here?) This example is a reminder that all is not ideal in the analog world eiher.

  • Michael McCoy | May 8, 2011 11:30 AMReply

    Thank you, Leonard! As a filmmaker I've been telling my friends and colleagues this for years and all they do is stare at me like I'm a moron. Of course, I've noticed the pupils of their eyes have become square pixels and they can't perceive anything that isn't video.

  • johan wolthuis | May 5, 2011 2:20 AMReply

    Lovers of "real" film should read the publication "Digital & 65mm" of International 70mm Publishers in the Netherlands.
    (don't worry it is in the English language!) .
    It is about the possibilities of 65mm film (!) and the digital future BUT also about "History and Development of 70mm".
    See for excerpts of this unique publication with many full colour illustrations the website; www.70mmpublishers.nl

  • Ted Wioncek, Jr. President W.C. Fields Fan Club | May 3, 2011 6:21 AMReply

    Leonard,

    I love film too. I just travelled to New York City to see two days of the W.C. Fields Film Festival at The Film Forum. The fesival included 26 35mm prints projected on the screen as they were intended to be seen. I greatly enjoyed Million Dollar Legs, International House, Never Give A Sucker An Even Break and The Bank Dick.

    As you know, The Film Forum is a small theatre but I am happy to say the audiences in the films I attended numbered between 65 to 100 people watching America's Grandest Comedian, W.C. Fields.

    (I sent you the latest Lompoc Picayune Intelligencer but I could use an updated address from you.)

  • J.C. Vaughn | May 3, 2011 3:31 AMReply

    Loved this article. So many of the decisions the industry are making are short term and seem to actually be endangering the longtime survival of theaters.

  • Kerr Lockhart | May 3, 2011 1:10 AMReply

    Well, I remember seeing films projected in my neighborhood house and they looked TERRIBLE.

    Scratched, dirty, spiced and sometimes with color fading. And the bulb was fading and the sound was garbled mono.

    Yes, a pristine print in optimum circumstances is incomparable, but for everyday viewing, I think digital sources are just fine and don't degenerate the way film does.

  • Tony Dale | May 2, 2011 11:49 AMReply

    CAN-CAN was not a 'scope film, but one of the later TODD-AO productions from 20th Century Fox. . .with nearly a 2:1 aspect ratio, as opposed to 'scope's 2:35/2.40:1 ratio.

  • Dennis Doros | May 2, 2011 10:28 AMReply

    Leonard,
    I'm not as concerned about the look of digital as I was five years ago. The process has become far closer to film look (just watch the digital restoration of TAXI DRIVER) and there have been many horrible looking 35mm prints done in the past. But, you are absolutely right about the threat to indie film theaters AND indie distributors. One problem is the initial cost but the other long-term problem is going to be the on-going costs of "improved" systems. Where the 35mm format lasted for nearly 100 years, digital restoration and projection (as well as storage) continues to be re-defined. First it was 2K, now 4K, and there we be other refinements as well. The indies just can't afford this every few years.

  • Dave Conti | May 2, 2011 10:07 AMReply

    I work for a movie theatre chain. All theatres are in the process of going to digital projectors and I was told there will be no more actual film aftrer the next couple of years. The studios are all moving to strictly digital

  • Jacob Boelman | May 2, 2011 9:59 AMReply

    I sort of have the same mind set for films 35mm Vs. Digital as I do on the comparison of 2D animation VS. CG animation. 35mm film has a totally different feel from Digital film as does 2D from CG. Instead of picking up the new and deserting the old, we should learn how to strengthen the new through learning from the old.

  • Dick May | May 2, 2011 9:41 AMReply

    Leonard,
    To be technically picky, your illustration of a strip of film from Can Can has some flaws:
    1. It is flipped over. Viewing a print correctly, the sound track is on the left.
    2. Can Can was a scope film. Your image is not squeezed.
    3. It should be in color.

    Constructive crititisim I hope.

  • Dick May | May 2, 2011 9:39 AMReply

    To all who are interested in some of the problems the digital world will create, take a look at the just-published AMIA Technical Review for May, 2011. You can get it at www.amiatechreview.com.

    Read the article: "Goodbye Dawson City" by Nicola Mazzanti.

  • Jeff Heise | May 2, 2011 9:19 AMReply

    Having just attended-with over 150,000 people-the LA Times Festival of Books, it was nice to see that there are still people out there who believe in printed words and images on a piece of paper. How will authors sign Kindles and eBooks? With a lightsaber? While the wonders of the digital era are incredible, the analog world should be allowed to co-exist alongside for two reasons: one-it is easier to reach over a pick up a book or magazine and start reading in the blink of an eye, while you have to wait for that little gadget to power and boot up and God forbid if the battery runs down and you cannot get to a charger; and two-the feel of that book in your hand is unique and cannot be equalled with something electronic, along with the rustle of pages and the smell of the ink.

    The same goes for film-you have not lived until you have been able to actually witness a screening of a 35mm IB Technicolor nitrate print or even a nitrate B/W film. You feel like you have stepped into another world that you never want to leave. I have been to digital projections of classics like the '56 TEN COMMANDMENTS, THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE SEARCHERS, and while they were stunning to the eye, I noticed that the flicker was gone that let me know that I was watching something that went through a lens onto a piece of celluloid one frame at a time to go through a chemical process then finally to be physically in a little room shot over a beam of light to the delight of dozens if not hundreds if not thousands of people at the same time.

    I certainly hope that the book and movie world don't become like Edward G. Robinson's character in SOYLENT GREEN, where he introduces Charlton Heston to the joys of real food (the part where Heston first tries jam is incredible) and realizes that he is doomed. I pray that never happens.

  • Bill Cotter | May 2, 2011 9:13 AMReply

    I worry about how any films will be lost over time when they only exist in digital format. Think about how many films only exist today because a fan or collector saved a print. Years from now I would not be at all surprised to find out that a film was lost as someone forgot to save a copy, or had deleted files to save storage fees (shade of the infamous wipe of Tonight Show videotapes).

    When all the studio digital copies are gone this time there won't be fans stepping up to fill the void...

  • Ralph Celentano | May 2, 2011 8:49 AMReply

    The 35mm experience will be lost on the new generation.
    Many color restorations have lost the IB Technicolor rich look.
    I've lost interest in the new video game approach in films. Nervous and jerky hand held camera work is another negative in today's film.

  • Ron Merk | May 2, 2011 7:03 AMReply

    Leonard,
    I'm glad you added the "but seriously" because I was getting ready to excoriate you of all people who truly understands that we cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. 35mm will be with us for a long time, no matter what industry and economic trends may tell those who make the decisions about making or not making 35mm prints. The loss of those film labs has been a tragedy. The difficulty of handling film printing has become more complicated, and one day, we will not be able to "extract" to a digital form many great cinema treasures because no one has the equipment on which those films were originally duplicated or shown.
    Yesterday, I had the extreme good fortune to be at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, for Serge Bromberg's amazing presentation of 3D films, which included three Melies films shot between 1903 and 1906 on a "dual negative camera" that Melies created in order to create two camera originals when he shot his films. The side-benefit, when Serge figured out the difference between a French print and U.S. print was a 7 cm. offset, was that Melies, unknown to himself, had created the first stereoscopic films. We sat totally amazed in the dark. Here was early 20th century France in crystal clear 3D. We need to hold on to these films and technologies. That are part of the digital world. Without them, digital will lose its own history, and these thrilling moments of cinema will be lost forever. So, save that Simplex, store that optical printer, because without easy "retrieval" nothing can be considered properly archived for the future. And for the readers out there, if you've never seen a nitrate print with its luminous quality, or a Technicolor IB print, with it's ability to render dark green, purple, pure yellow and dark blue in ways that modern film and digital cannot match, keep an eye out for the next such presentation at an archive or theater near you. Sure, modern effects can take your breath away, but 35mm can make your heart simply skip a beat.

  • Carlos Sandoval | May 2, 2011 1:33 AMReply

    What about books? The printed word is akin to celuloid prints. Word is to the book like picture is to film. Are they likely to fade from this plantet too? No. I think that film is a very unique form of art and not just out of nostagia; all of the arts converge in film. Film is a very textured medium were in a theater we can dream awake in the dark to all those wonderful images in 35 mm and the way they were conceived. This is not the end, as we know it...

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