Double Jeopardy for Celluloid Film

Celluloid heroes are going, going, gone. No John Wayne riding off into the sunset, no Minnie Mouse or Popeye the Sailor Man and no Brad and Angelina on tiny rectangles of motion picture film. 

In reality, the living celebrities are still here, but the 35 mm celluloid film base on which the movie industry has distributed prints to theaters for over a century has been replaced — first by polyester film and more recently, by digital hard drives.

Paramount Pictures became the first major motion picture studio to announce that it would distribute copies in an all-digital format beginning with the release of “The Wolf of Wall Street” on Jan. 23 in Australia. Prints of the movie released before that date in the U.S. and abroad were made on 35 mm polyester film base. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, theater industry executives were briefed on the decision earlier in the month and Paramount will continue distributing prints to international markets where most theaters still use film projectors. 

Other studios are expected to follow suit. The Jan. 18 article also mentioned that 20th Century Fox sent a 2011 letter to theaters stating that it would stop distributing film prints “within the next year or two.”

On Jan. 28, the newspaper reported that Paramount amended its decision in a letter written by Vice Chairman Rob Moore. 

“Although we anticipate the majority of the studio’s future releases to be executed in digital format across the U.S., select exceptions will be made,” he said. 

One such exception will be director Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller, “Interstellar,” that is slated for a November 2014 release via film and digital formats.

Paramount is expected to greatly reduce distribution expenses because digital copies cost less than $100 versus the near-$2000 price tag for each film print. 

Despite the savings, the industry giant has not reduced the fees it charges theaters for showing Paramount movies.

In the mid-1990s, the large studios helped theaters finance a conversion to $70,000 digital projectors.

The National Association of Theatre Owners said 92 percent of the 40,045 screens in the U.S. have already converted to digital.

The “odd man out,” of course, is the small independent theater operator. 

Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol is one of the lucky ones.

“We love the look of celluloid, but the digital conversion allows for wider distribution,” said Melissa Hatheway, director of marketing and community relations. 

In 2010, the theater closed its doors on Summerfield Road in Santa Rosa after a 10-year run, but resurfaced in 2012 at its current location where digital projectors were already in use.

Summerfield Cinemas operates in the Summerfield Road building once occupied by Rialto Cinemas.

“We actually went fully digital about two week ago,” said company spokesperson Leigha Battles-Sandages. “Prior to that, we were half digital, half 35 mm. We have one projector that still has 35 mm capabilities just in case we get a movie that is only in 35.”

The miniscule Rio Theater in Monte Rio did not respond to repeated queries, but riotheater.com states that the “Save the Rio” fundraising campaign amassed more than enough funds ($66,013) to purchase one digital projector.

Prints made with nitrocellulose film base were phased out in 1952 because it is highly flammable. Its replacement, cellulose acetate, was widely used until the 1990s when polyester film became more popular.

Nevertheless, the motion picture industry uses acetate negatives during shooting because polyester can severely damage movie cameras if the media jams.

Storing digital motion pictures is more expensive than storing film.

In November 2007, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences released the results of an 18-month study called “The Digital Dilemma.”

It discovered that preserving digital masters is 11 times more expensive than preserving film.

The SciTech Council reported that the annual cost of preserving film master materials is $1059 per title while the annual cost of preserving a 4K [a pixel resolution grade] digital master is $12, 514.

Furthermore, digital archiving is unreliable because magnetic tape and hard drives are plagued with widespread file corruption and mechanical failure. 

Experts point to bits missing from digital files, hard drives seizing up after two years of non-operation, DVDs degrading and digital audiotape becoming unreadable.

“We have already lost a great amount of digital material,” said Milt Shefter, the point person  and co-author of “The Digital Dilemma.”

Format obsolescence may pose an even greater danger to movie archiving because of rapid changes in storage device technology. 

Consequently, data must be migrated every two years to a new format. Transferring digital files is costly because it is labor intensive, so some labs have resorted to using robotic devices to move digital tapes in and out of tape drives. 

Hundreds of movies have been lost. Some celluloid was never converted to VHS; others never made it to DVD; and few will be converted to Blu-ray. 

Hollywood has a vested interest in finding a solution to the “digital dilemma.” According to recent assessments by the research service Global Media Intelligence, library sales generate about a third of the studios’ collective $36 billion annual revenue.

The current remedy is to store copies of all studio movies on polyester film in climate-controlled vaults, even those shot with digital technology.

The life expectancy is about 100 years. This is by no means a perfect resolution because image quality is being lost as the works are transferred from film format to digital and back to film, or in recent years, digital to film.

As the proverb goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”