What will become of film?

I suppose that it’s natural to shape every bit of news to find the parts that affect our hobbies or business. In every report of theaters needing to upgrade their projection systems to digital, the main focus has been finding the money, or occasionally how the new system looks in operation.

Film historian Daniel Eagan has written about the same issue with a different perspective. When essentially all theaters have moved to digital projection, what will happen to all the older movies that only exist on film?

Eagen writes in The Atlantic that the effects of the end of film have already begun. “Curators, programmers, and repertory schedulers are scrambling to find versions on film of titles that used to be easy to acquire. Warner Bros. won’t rent titles unless it has at least two copies in its vaults. So if a theater wanted to show Sky Full of Moon or Fearless Fagin, WB films from the 1950s, it would have to project a DVD — with an accompanying drastic drop in sound and image quality. Twentieth Century Fox no longer has prints of Miller’s Crossing or Barton Fink … However, if a collector will supply a print, Fox will be happy to charge its usual licensing fees.”

The trouble is that running a film through a projector is a necessarily destructive process. It scratches and fades with time. Never mind the hefty cost of creating a new print from a negative; there are few companies left to do it at all.

Even when films are transferred to Digital Cinema Packages, there are a lot of tough questions. Will the digital format of today become obsolete a few years from now? In the restoration work, are the right people adjusting color, contrast, and brightness? The digital files are huge, and all hard drives die eventually, so what’s the right way to store them?

I feel a little embarrassed by Eagen’s fine article. I’ve been worrying for over a year about small theaters in general, and drive-ins in particular, when I should have been worrying about the larger picture. I sure hope we come up with a good way to save film in general, since it stores so much of our 20th-century memories.

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