Hollywood directors and studios rally to save Kodak's last film-manufacturing facility. Can they forestall film's extinction?
Over the last few years, commercial cinemas have aggressively converted from film to digital projection, thanks in large part to subsidies from the studios. In 2009, over 80% of US theaters were film-based, while in 2013, over 92% were digital, according to IHS Screen Digest. Similarly, moviemakers have transitioned from film to digital cameras in droves, leading Kodak to close all but one of its film-manufacturing facilities as sales of movie-film stock plummeted from a high of 12.4 billion linear feet in 2006 to an estimated 449 million feet in 2014, a drop of more than 96% in eight years as reported in a recent story on the Wall Street Journal website
and elsewhere. And with Fujifilm exiting the business last year, Kodak is the only remaining major producer of movie film.
There are still some directors and cinematographers who prefer to shoot on film—or at least to have the option—even if the end result will be presented digitally. Among them are Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow, and J.J. Abrams, who is reportedly shooting the next Star Wars movie on film. These advocates have lobbied studios such as Warner Bros., Universal, Disney, and Weinstein to commit to purchase a certain amount of film from Kodak over the next few years, a plan that is now being finalized. "It's a financial commitment, no doubt about it," says Bob Weinstein, co-chairman of Weinstein Co., in the WSJ article. "But I don't think we could look some of our filmmakers in the eyes if we didn't do it."
Also in the WSJ article, Judd Apatow is quoted as saying that film and digital "are valid choices, but it would be a tragedy if suddenly directors didn't have the opportunity to shoot on film. There's a magic to the grain and the color quality that you get with film." On the other hand, the article reports that few young directors still use film; in fact, the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California offers only one class that trains students in the use of film.
Of course, shooting digitally is much more convenient, allowing the moviemakers to see the results instantly instead of waiting for the film to be processed—which is becoming a lost art itself, with many fewer facilities than in the past. However, contrary to what I had been led to believe, the WSJ article reports that it costs about the same to rent cameras and recording equipment for a movie in either case, according to industry experts.
Another issue is long-term archiving, which is still done on film, even with movies that are shot with digital cameras. Digital files must be copied onto new storage media as older formats become obsolete—anyone still have a SCSI Zip drive?—and those copies can be corrupted in the process.
This whole thing reminds me of the debate between recording music on analog tape versus digitally. For the most part, even if the recording is done in the analog domain, it will end up being distributed as digital data, yet some recording professionals continue to use analog tape because they claim it offers an ineffable "something" that recording digitally can never achieve. Similarly, advocates of shooting movies on film claim that it offers things that digital has yet to match. And in both cases, proponents claim that those analog qualities survive the transition from analog capture to digital distribution, at least to some degree.
What do you think? Should the studios invest in keeping film stock available—an ironic twist after spending so much on converting commercial cinemas to digital projection—or should they heed the words of Q in the James Bond flick Die Another Day: "Yes, well, it's the future, so get used to it"?
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