Celluloid Resurgence: Film is not dead after all

The unique release of Christopher Nolan's epic space tale "Interstellar" has our critic reevaluating the digital vs. film divide.

Actual, physical celluloid has been on the endangered species list for more than a decade. Surely you’ve already heard about it. Death to cinema they’ve been saying! Digital projection, “that’s just TV in public,” says Quentin Tarantino. You know, typical over-the-top, sky-is-falling bloviating from the sometimes tragically nostalgic cinephile crowd. Admittedly, I am one of them, but these days find myself more in the middle of this seismic change in movies. When a situation is this complex, it’s the best place to be. It’s where optimism is earned.

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However, before satisfaction would be mine… first things first: Christopher Nolan has a new film out, called “Interstellar.” You’ve no doubt heard about this too. Nolan is one of a handful of big name directors whose name even average moviegoers know. His place in the pantheon of great modern auteurs is well-earned. He consistently makes good, sometimes great, cinema (there’s even a masterpiece or two in his filmography). He is a bastion for going out to the movies, no mere conjurer of cheap tricks but one who instills all his work with honest-to-goodness movie magic.

I’d love to wax-poetic about “Interstellar” (believe me, I really could), but that’s not what I’m here to do (besides, everyone and their mother has already reviewed the damn thing, so there’s plenty of opinions to sift through). In short—set your hyperbole and critic-speak tolerance to high, please—I found it to be immensely enthralling and easily Nolan’s (a chilly director) most emotionally satisfying film to date. I laughed, I cried, I was honestly blown away at times. It’s a more complete, far greater accomplishment than even his last two (very good) movies, “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception.” I can’t recommend enough seeing it on the biggest screen possible, to take in the vastness of its vision.

The question becomes: in what format will you be seeing “Interstellar?” For those who don’t know—or much more likely just don’t care—Nolan has been a big proponent of shooting and projecting his work on film. He’s used his clout in the industry, of which he has a lot (thanks to an impressive box office run of massive hits), to ensure that folks in cities where cinemas still have working film projectors can see “Interstellar” on film, be it on the former standard 35mm or the gloriously huge 70mm IMAX. Most will see it on the new standard, DCP. In the end, all that truly matters is that people see it, feel something (good or bad) and hopefully are moved by the picture.

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It’s unfortunately never that simple. I’ve already written about how the film vs. digital debate is beyond tired and boring. It continues to get in the way of us having more fruitful, vital conversations about cinema. This urge to steer the cinematic conversation in (any) other direction began in earnest after I read an article by Erik Henriksen published in the May 12, 2011 edition of the Portland Mercury. The headline said it all: Celluloid Cemetery. Though the piece did present some dire future realities for many of the independent theaters in town, I remembered it being much more alarmist and scary. Perhaps too many fellow movie lovers I spoke with about it interpreted the sub headline—Will digital projection kill Portland’s independent movie theaters?—not as the question being posed but a clear, direct certainty. Seriously, everyone in my circle was freaking out about this article at the time, so much so that it clouded my thoughts on what the article was actually saying.

I think most them of got hung up on this particular paragraph:

“It’s either you convert to digital, or you close your theater in a year and a half, or two.” Easier said than done, considering the price tags for the high-end projectors the major studios require. For each auditorium, “the conversion typically runs between $50,000 and $60,000,” [Scott] Hicks says. “And then there’s the cost of 3D in addition to that….That’s more—a lot more—than most independent theaters can afford. “It’s a very scary time,” Hicks says. “This conversion to digital will close a large number of screens across the US.”

It was basically a missing the forest for the trees kind of situation. Now that I’ve read it again recently, with the benefit of hindsight, what seemed like an alarmist screed by Henriksen instead reads as the rigorously researched and reported, well-written piece that it is. Just look at the conclusion:

“I don’t imagine we’re going to completely get rid all of our 35mm projectors,” [Dannon[ Dripps says of the Academy [Theater]. “There’s definitely an aesthetic to it that I think some people will still seek out. The way I think about it is like listening to music: While I love my iPod, and it makes total sense to put all my music on there, I still love collecting and listening to records.

The demise of film, I think, is a little bit exaggerated,” says [Seth] Sonstein. “There’s so much film out there! There are companies with giant libraries of film. As long as there are places like the Clinton and the Hollywood and Cinema 21, it’s gonna be all right.

Maybe at some point, seeing a film on 35mm will be an event in and of itself—and a reason to visit the independent theaters that are still in business. “I do think film will become a niche after digital’s been the standard for a while,” says [Dan] Halsted. “I think there’ll be another chance for independent theaters. It’ll probably give Cinema 21 and the Hollywood a little bit of a leg up to still have the dual-projector setup, where we can run [both]. ‘Cause they probably will strike some repertory prints, and it’ll be a, like, a big deal. People will be like, ‘Holy shit! It’s on film. I remember that from a long time ago.’

Henriksen’s article was spot-on in this respect, because as the unique “Interstellar” release this week proves, Halsted was right in his assertion. Nolan’s film was released earlier this week in film format only, with a wide digital release starting Friday. The Hollywood Theatre (where Halstad is head programmer) is one of only a few theaters in town already showing the film, on 35mm. What this proves is that film will survive, but only by becoming what everything is these days: niche-based. That is exciting. That is progress. And it’s only been three years since Henriksen’s article freaked out so many PDX cinephiles.

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Imax_format_srov_35mm_70mmA resurgence is coming, led by a vocal minority of film lovers who actually have enough sway and influence to make some steps in keeping the format alive. Celluloid may be on the endangered species list, but it’s not going the way of the dodo. Nolan, Tarantino, JJ Abrams, Judd Apatow, and Martin Scorsese have all lobbied to have the major Hollywood studios purchase enough film stock per year from Kodak to give directors the opportunity to continue shooting on film. Wisely, all they’ve asked for is to have the option to shoot on their preferred format. It appears to have worked.

Beyond shooting on film, Tarantino is planning for his next film, “The Hateful Eight,” to have the widest 70mm release in more than 20 years. Surely there’ll be 35mm prints struck of the film as well. Just like Nolan, Tarantino’s films of late have been box office cash cows. If there’s anything that makes Hollywood stand up and listen, it’s money. These directors are exerting this good will to keep a technology alive so it can continue into the future as an option.

In another, more recent article over at the Mercury film blog from October 1st, Henriksen again makes my points for me (thanks again!):

“Only a certain strain of film geek seem to really, deeply care about the digital-vs.-35mm debate, at least when it comes to watching movies. The average moviegoer isn’t going to notice any difference between a good print and a DCP (or even know what a DCP is). Personally, I’ll always have a soft spot for 35mm, but I’ve also been to my fair share of screenings that’ve boasted a 35mm print—only to find out, once the movie starts, that the print is so scratched and battered and faded that a Blu-ray would’ve been better. So it’s a mixed bag, and I’m generally wary of and/or annoyed by anybody who’s too hardline in one direction or the other.

HOWEVER. I am a fan of anything that restores the “specialness” of going to the movies—the idea that watching a movie is something you go out and do, that it’s something you (and the people around you) pay close attention to, that it’s an experience that can’t be replicated quite so easily with Netflix and a good TV.

I couldn’t have put it better.

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Perhaps all this tumult and melodrama about the way we watch movies today is for the best. We can have our freak outs about things not being the way they used to be and other such nonsense, but in the end, it’s best to move on. That will allow us to steer the conversation back to where it matters: the films.

There will be more updates, changes and technological advances. It’s all but guaranteed. Is that such a bad thing? In the three-plus years since the Celluloid Cemetery article, Nolan has released two films on actual film, for those who care about such things. Paul Thomas Anderson shot and released “The Master” on 70mm. The Northwest Film Center, Hollywood Theatre, Cinemagic, and Cinema 21 have all projected titles on film. Quentin Tarantino has taken over as programmer for the New Beverly in LA and promises to project on film only. Perhaps the time is now to realign our thinking, put away childish things and see the reality for what it is. Film will not die.

For casuals and obsessives, now is an exciting time in cinema. This year alone has been flush with quality movies, so much so that whittling down my top 10 list will prove very arduous in the coming months. Sure, there’s way too much content out there. We have incredible access at our fingertips, a rich film history that’s only a button push away. We still have plenty of theaters, big and small, corporate and independent. All of them have films to show of all kinds. People will see them, and if my first year as a projectionist at the new, expanded Cinema 21 has proven anything, it’s that people will still come out to see a film at a theater, despite what some (tad bit alarmist) critics might be saying.

What’s needed more than ever is curation. Voices you can trust. There are a lot of good choices currently at the movies. You can see some amazing animated films at OMSI’s restored Empirical Theater, The Portland German Film Festival at Cinema 21 followed by the latest edition of HUMP!, The 41st Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival put on by the NWFC, and so much more. Of course, there’s the Hollywood with their fun monthly programming and of course, that 35mm print of “Interstellar.”

Christopher Nolan doesn’t like digital cinema, but even he’s used it to his benefit. Much as he likes to shoot practically with in-camera effects, “Interstellar” is loaded with eye-popping visuals that can only be made with a computer. The world could use more Nolans, to be sure, but we at least have him and a few others fighting the good fight. He’s found his balance. Just like we need to as an audience and as film lovers. Let’s steer the conversation elsewhere, to more vital, lasting and interesting places, and learn to live with all these options best we can.

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NOTES:

AYT #93, in which my co-host and I talk about film vs. digital.

-SHORT FILM: Going Dark: The Final Days of Film Projection

-READ: The Playlist re: nurturing the next film generations to come.

-TRAILER: “Out of Print,” a documentary exploring the importance of revival cinema and 35mm exhibition – seen through the lens of the patrons of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles.

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