Is Film Dead? Then Why Do People Keep Wishing For It To Return?

11 04 2012

I am a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is that Academy.  The one that gives out the Oscars every year. Though, actually, that’s only one teeny tiny part of what the Academy does.

One other thing that it does is to recognize great student work from around the world — by giving out Student Oscars. I am one of a whole slew of members who watch shorts (defined as 40 minutes or under — which often doesn’t seem so short) from non-U.S. film schools so we can vote on the ones that we think represent filmmakers who we would love to see be nominated for feature films in the future.  It’s a great committee

But something odd happened the other night, and it dovetailed nicely with an annual survey that Harry Miller conducts for A.C.E. every year.

Here’s the odd thing that happened.  One of the committee members got up and noted that fewer and fewer of the films submitted to us are captured on film. This member wondered if there wasn’t some way that we acknowledge and reward films that were actually shot on film. He wasn’t suggesting that we vote with that in mind, he hastened to add. He just felt that the Academy awarded films. And he wanted to acknowledge those that were shot on film.

With that, my jaw nearly dropped to the floor and one of my row-mates asked if I wanted to stand up and kick some butt.  Well, I did want to do that, though it was not the forum for that. So I kept my seat, and put my jaw back in its proper place.

You see, it seems to me that what we really do in the Academy is honor good stories, well told (THE ARTIST notwithstanding). It doesn’t matter if they’re captured on a Flip Cam (well, not anymore, I guess) or 70mm. Entrancing, captivating stories know no format.

This was borne out by a survey that Harry Miller helps to conduct every year among members of A.C.E. who are editing movies and television. Since 2004 he has asked a number of questions. One of them is what format (“camera original” in his survey) the editors’ projects were captured on. Back in 2004, the breakdown went something like this:

16mm film 7.5%
35mm film 72.6%
70mm 0%
DV-HD 0%
HD (24p) 10%
Digital (Drive/Tape/etc.) 0%

Now, let’s jump ahead a mere seven years to last year – 2011.

16mm film 2.48%
35mm film 15.53%
70mm 0.62%
DV-HD 15.53%
Digital (Drive/Tape/etc.) (includes 24p) 62.11%
Other 4.35%

If my math is correct (and I was pretty damned good at simple math back in high school) that is a six-fold increase in Digital acquisition, while 35mm film fell to one-fourth of its 2004 percentage.

Now Harry would be the first to confess that this survey was completely non-scientific. It includes pretty much whoever wanted to respond and doesn’t include anyone who either forgot or didn’t want to respond. But the trend is completely obvious. Kodak isn’t just in bankruptcy, its film side is dead, dead, dead. Labs may be making some decent money making prints worldwide, but more than 50% of U.S. theaters are digital now and the world is fast catching up. Those cinematographers who are still developing film negative are looking at a future in which it will get increasingly more difficult (and, hence, more expensive) to process film neg. Which means that fewer and fewer productions will shoot film. Which means that lab work will get even more expensive.

Which means that film will pretty much die. No, let me take that back.  It won’t “pretty much die,” it will totally absolutely die.

Since all of our theaters will eventually be digital projection (and nearly 100% of our films will go through a digital finish anyway), I defy anyone’s mother or non-industry friend to tell the difference between a digital capture film like THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or the upcoming SPIDERMAN 3, and a film capture. Either subconsciously or consciously.

Wishing that film would come back seems about as pointless to me as pining after those really great lemon cookies that Keebler used to make that I loved so much.  That now are dead, dead, dead.

I think it’s time to reward “good stories, well told” and forget how they were shot. Or, let’s bring those Keebler Lemon Cookies back.

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6 responses to “Is Film Dead? Then Why Do People Keep Wishing For It To Return?”

11 04 2012
Sex Mahoney (10:16:28) :

Film may survive in a limited fashion, but it’s such an antiquated medium that there isn’t much to be said in its defense. The only question then is what do we do with all those reels once they’ve been digitized? Back in the vault, or to the landfill?

11 04 2012
John Luke Retard (14:55:01) :

Having many a hard drive fail on me, I’m worried about where we’re going to store all this digital info.

But, yeah, film will go the way of black and white. We’ll see it very rarely.

13 04 2012
James Shelledy (16:16:14) :

Hard drives fail. And then there is the constant transferring to different file formats. Digital is a lot more perishable than film is.

4 12 2012
Becca S. (19:12:16) :

This is a very interesting post about the death of film. As a film student of University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, I find your comment about how few student shorts are shot on film very interesting. When I first came to USC in 2009, there was only one class offered to undergraduates that actually shot on film. This class, which I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to take, no longer exits. Currently, there is not even an opportunity for students at the top ranked film school to learn how to shoot film, so I appreciate your comment about story over medium. Although students at USC are not shooting on film, that is not to say they are not making good movies. And while I agree with your sentiments that film is on its way out, I do not believe it will be gone forever, and I do not think it should be written off as antiquated knowledge for future filmmakers as well. Knowing how to shoot on film can only enhance an understanding of digital filmmaking.
This idea of learning the “old” way to better grasp the “new” is not embraced at USC. However, while studying abroad in Prague, I had the opportunity to study at the Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), one of the oldest film schools in Europe. This institution had the opposite philosophy as USC – most classes were taught on film or with film in mind. I noticed too that not as many theaters in Prague screen digitally as in the US. I wonder if the digital revolution is a slower process there or does the Czech film industry just place a higher value on film? In my experience, it seems to be a combination of both. So, while I can agree with your statement that film will dies, I must say, I agree with it in the context of the American film industry. Many of the future filmmakers in the US will not have learned how to shoot on film, so yes, it seems obvious that eventually film will be a thing of the past. However, I do not think this change will occur as swiftly abroad.

12 02 2013
Norman (16:33:47) :

Becca,

Sorry that it’s taken me so long to respond.

Europe and other areas are slower to do the digital conversion, but estimates are that over 50% of non-US theaters will be digital within three years. Of course, China is skewing those statistics, so it may be lower in Europe.

But we are talking exhibition here, not capture/acquisition/shooting. Once the scales tip away from film distribution by any appreciable margin, film labs will run away from dailies processing (we already see that here — remember Technicolor anyone?). That will make it too expensive to shoot film except in the highest level film, where the filmmakers have power. And, eventually, even those will become untenable.

12 02 2013
Norman (16:34:55) :

Oh, and by the way, I believe that USC does embrace learning the “old way” to embrace the new. I just have a different view of the old way — I think that storytelling is the way to embrace any new technology to come down the pike.

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