It was a rough week for celluloid film in Chicago. After Rogert Ebert pronounced the death of film in 2011, my friend and fellow programmer Kyle Westphal wrote, “The emulsion is on the wall, so to speak.” After last week, it seems as though the emulsion has been scraped off the wall, fed into a woodchipper, and, bloody remains (heart still beating) and all, deposited into a rusty dumpster in an alley somewhere. As usual, the accelerated elimination of this century-plus-year-old medium has less to do with a lack of energy or content, and everything to do with the relentless greasy hammer of movie-industry grifter capitalism securing yet another nail in its coffin.
Astro Labs—the last film processing company in the city and one of the few labs still active anywhere in the Midwest—announced that it is closing down. This is a big deal: Astro is where every one of John Hughes’s movies, High Fidelity, and the new Batman movies were cut, among countless others. In other words, the lab that processed movies that have defined Chicago for three decades (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the ’80s; High Fidelity in the ’90s, and The Dark Knight in the 2000s) is closed. Astro had endured tough business times, continuing to process 16mm and 35mm film dailies with a staff of only six while the industry has been making its unyielding transition to digital production and exhibition. Owner Manuela Hung has said that during the shooting of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan wanted dailies of particular scenes—but with Astro being so understaffed and the number of film technicians in Chicago being decimated by old age or death, he had to recruit students from Columbia College to cut the original negative (i.e., they were working with the only copy available). Re-read: Students from Columbia College cut the negative of The Dark Knight.
How does this particular closing fit in to the future of film? As film labs shutter across the country and bankrupt Kodak is gradually phased out in the wake of Hollywood’s massive shift to digital, this medium will soon cease to exist as a mainstream business. Projectionists, film technicians, archivists, arthouse programmers, and lab specialists will fight for a decreasing amount of jobs (in several cities we are talking about union jobs, and for many projectionists who have held their jobs for decades). The production, exhibition, and care of celluloid film prints will soon be a completely niche practice reserved for the endowed archival houses (George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, for example) and the University-supported labs and film societies (UCLA Film and Television Archive, and places like our own Doc Films). Film prints, which used to be produced en masse and treated as such, may become priceless works of art—the stuff of black-market private collectors and funded archives.
Here’s why this matters. First, in an all-digital Hollywood, film prints are being scrapped, destroyed, locked away in vaults, or some combination of the three. Celluloid film is one of the most durable and storable materials that man has ever come up with: Keep it in a cold and dry place, and it lasts a century. We can still play Hitchcock film prints struck in the ’30s, because of film’s durability and relatively little technological change in its exhibition during the 20th century. By contrast, digital formats change fast, and are therefore much harder to preserve. Remember, hard drives and computers crash relatively easily. Think about how much music consumption has changed in the last 20 years: We’ve gone from cassette tapes to CDs to filesharing MP3s to torrented MP3s to a combination of piracy and streaming services like Spotify. Similar things have happened for movies: Seen a Betamax player or VCR recently? We are at a point where every time we archive a digital artwork, we also need to archive the technology that can even play that piece of art. Every time film technology changes, some movies are inevitably going to get lost in the shuffle. There simply isn’t the money or will or expertise to constantly re-restore everything.
Second, some movies are just going to look like crap on new digital formats. I’m no luddite—I’ve seen some DCP’s and 3D movies that looked really good—but there are problems associated with transferring movies made on 35mm to digital formats. In the theater, aspect ratios are blundered, color transfers look weird, and motion gets skewed. Digital projection may one day look as good as film, but right now it doesn’t. Last year, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master looked beautiful on 70mm, a format that’s been around since at least 1896, while Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit looked like a soap opera in its “revolutionary” high-definition 48fps projection speed. Outside the theater, there is no standard for how people see stuff. Movies are watched on iPads, iPhones, TVs, and computer screens, and often with a far smaller degree of focus than when people used to sit in a dark theater, forced to actually concentrate from start to finish. This matters, because it contributes to the degeneration of our generation’s attention span, and therefore, its ability to care about important things like movies: As David Lynch said, “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.”
Can universities, archives, and wealthy 35mm purists like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino keep this thing alive? The money from studios for film storage and preservation is drying up fast. What happens if digital storage is not figured out fast enough? What happens if from now on, movies always look like crap, and nobody knows how to care about them because nobody actually experiences them? To give you an idea of how irrelevant the industry is in addressing these problems, consider what a Warner Bros. executive told me a few years ago after denying me access to a print: “DVD is the future.” Hollywood has moved on.