20 Jan

The End of 35mm film distribution. Cinema will never be the same: It will actually be better.

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The end of 35mm film distribution The end of 35mm film distribution Panavision/RedShark

 If you live in the US and want to see a Paramount movie on 35mm, you're going to have to go and watch Anchorman 2. Well, it is described as “nearly as funny as its predecessor” on Rotten Tomatoes

In a move that surprised absolutely nobody and drew a mumbled imprecation of “well, it was only a matter of time” from observers such as yours truly, Paramount have, in the breathless phrasology of headlines, “axed distribution on 35mm.” Despite the fact that this was always the express intention of digital projection, less level-headed industry commentators – or people with nice home cinema systems who like to sound traditionalist – have taken the opportunity to hyperventilate, again, about the perceived inadequacy of digital cinema, even though the basic 2K systems are objectively better in terms of resolution, noise and steadiness than 35mm after four duplications could ever be.

But enough snarky asides. The downside here has really already occurred: film labs always survived not on the relatively small volumes of material created by shooting films, but on the much larger volumes of print distribution. In the US, at least, this business has been in terminal decline for some time, and while there's no comfort in the further whittling away of that revenue stream, the lion's share of the damage to the availability of photochemical services is already done.

Tipping point?

People have been claiming that the tipping point came surprisingly quickly. It really didn't. I've said this before, but the replacement of film as both a production and distribution medium was put off for year after year as the industry agonised over the adequacy of cheaper electronic replacements. We may complain about producers, but I can't think of many other industries – outside the safety-of-life issues inherent to things like aerospace, medicine and the military – which have been quite as able to keep the people in authority interested in quality.

The place where a withdrawal of 35mm prints will cause more grief is in the developing world. India is an interesting example because they have a thriving indigenous industry which will presumably keep producing stuff for local consumption as a 35mm print until the business need to do so goes away. This, arguably, is what Paramount have done, not that the idea is much comfort to owners of small independent move theatres who don't have the $50,000 to $100,000 required to refit a screen. But the current Paramount decision doesn't affect less technologically and financially equipped places anyway: it applies only to US distribution.

So the real shame is that 8% of screens in the US aren't capable of showing DCPs at all, and that this group of exhibitors probably overlaps with some of the older, more historic electric picture palaces. Some have been frantically fundraising to cover the refit costs, and some, inevitably, have been forced to shut down. It will be a shame if the move to digital projection, something jealously guarded for technical quality, actually ends up condemning us all to the small-room multiplex experience in a big corporate-owned cinema, because that's not the point of having a decent cinema infrastructure in the first place.

Read Phil Rhodes on Film vs Digital: here's the reality





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  • I think this move is done lets move on we all know the great and enormous value of the electric cinema. Shoot on Alexa or Red something else all 4 k of course. Make movies and better movies try to copy the old cameramen and directors is the challenge. I think that electronic cinema projection is a fabulous opportunity to experiment with out door and in door cinema . We should also not forget 50 % talent is in the sound track . I cant wait till they bring 4k to my area. If we all look back we would all become Romans and enjoy ourselves so lets do the reverse and still enjoy ourselves. Movies are entertainment not university lessons.

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  • John - VERY good point about soundtracks!

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  • As a person who only watches movies and is not involved in the industry, I have no dog in this race.
    I can only say that in spite of the "miracle of digital technology", the recording industry has revived vinyl, and home video camera manufacturers have brought back tape, as in Hi-8 cassettes. Let us see what digital does for the movie industry. Are the theater owners and operators wasting a lot of money. Time will tell.

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  • On the upside, it looks like you will soon be able to enjoy 4K projection in the home as opposed to the 2K digital projection in most cinemas, so things are definitely getting better on the home front!

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  • I am not in the industry, but a movie goer. The last few times I went to the theatre was dissappointing. A lot of times during the movie the frequent fluttering and the blurring of portions of the film gave me almost an instant headache each and every time it happened. Real bummer. So I probably won't be going the the theatre anymore. I wondered why this was happening and finally figured it out. No film anymore and I wish they would go back. New technology does have its drawbacks and this is a bad one.

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  • John;

    If you have problems with image quality you should complain to the theatre. Not enough people do this and standards can be alarmingly low mainly because nobody moans about it.

    That said, I don't know how descriptive it's possible to be in text, but what you're describing actually sounds more like a film problem than a digital one. One common reason that a projector could produce a flickering image that varied in brightness would be incipient lamp failure which happens if people run lamps beyond their rated lives, which is more common than it should be because the lamps are expensive. But to make it really visible, you'd have to run the lamp massively beyond its hours.

    If the blurring was frequent - in bursts of less than a few minutes - it's difficult to explain; film is actually more likely to cause this problem if there's reels printed on different base stocks, though this is rare. If it's more of a long term thing, involving periods of ten minutes or more, you may be seeing the effects of the projector warming up which can require periodic adjustment as parts expand and contract. Again, this can affect film as well, and again, not all projectionists pay sufficient attention.

    Ultimately it remains true there is much less to get wrong with digital projection, albeit some things you can get wrong are software settings rather than mechanical things. There are effectively no moving parts in a digital projector, other than a few cooling fans, and it is much less subject to sudden steadiness and focus changes due to mechanical issues.


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  • I have been through 'Video will never replace film' going back to the 60s. It didn't. Also 'CDs will never replace vinle' but now you have to ask where are CDs these days? The video recorder was born at the beginning of the 50s, and has all but vanished.

    To a large extent, these technologies are unknown to the viewer, be they TV or theatre viewers. Try doing an exit poll at a film theatre these days asking patrons whether they were watching electronic images or film. A local university did just that, and the results demonstrated that none of them knew at all.

    But why should they? They went there for entertainment or escapism for a while, and all they cared for was the story, not the technology.

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  • Interesting topic. A while ago I did a number of videos on this topic.
    It goes through the real reasons why film ended. Why film is likely to completely disappear and all the digital Equipment making this happen.. Its quite technical focusing on the cinema owner..
    But many of you may find it interesting.

    P.S. nice to see Phil.. you putting up digital is better then film. I have been trying to share that news-flash for years, but was afraid I would be lynched.. The older cinema projectionists (not so much the owners) simply refused to look at the technical papers and evidence.. I feel it was a resistance to change.. and ultimately most loosing their Job as they were not suited for front of house duties. (They always had the option)

    James (The CineTechGeek)

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  • Dear all !

    Please read this older article in addtion:

    Further i have to point out that money and/or technical aspects should never be the only parameters, when making a desicion. For example: having something beautiful in your hand, like filmstock, can not be overrated. That is one of the reasons, why vinyl works. The other one is the feeling of discomfort, having transferd everything in 0 and 1. Truly this is not a hard fact, but a common one. And it is related to the fact, that humans are more than calculating machines.

    On the other hand there is a part of the audiance, who just go to the cinema to look at the big digital effects and not to a good story.

    Thirdly i also use and like digital, but i think loosing the analog option is not a good idea. Its like blowing up churches or whatever else you can think of in destroying cultural heritage.


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  • Don't get rid of those 35mm projectors yet! Edgewood productions presents The return of Film! Releasing in December, "A Christmas Carol" on 35mm film. This one hour telling of the famous Dickens story is sure to warm the hearts of both young and old. "The Great Locomotive Caper" Sam and Ralph discover the mayor is about to scrap locomotive #246 on display in the city park. They launch into action saving the loco and and expose the mayor for the crook that he is! Released in 35mm in 2015. Many more films to come!

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Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a Cinematographer, Technologist, Writer and above all Communicator. Never afraid to speak his mind, and always worth listening to, he's a frequent contributor to RedShark.

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