In 1999, George Lucas's “The Phantom Menace” sent studios and theater owners into a tizzy. Along with the standard film prints, Lucasfilm rolled out a select number of “digital projection” test screenings for the latest “Star Wars” installment. The New York Times reported on the awestruck audiences, a mix of film enthusiasts, technophiles, and “Star Wars” geeks. One 17-year-old exclaimed, “All my friends who've seen it before are coming to see it again in 'dij','' – oh, kids and their slang! – ''It's 30 times better this way.'' Even the projectionist at the test screening's New Jersey theater agreed. “Film is wonderful. It's done tremendous things for us over the last 75 to 100 years. But another way is here. You're watching history.''
15 years later, the revolution continues – in reverse. And it's getting ugly. Can anyone save film projection?
Much to the dismay of converted theater owners, many of Hollywood's premiere directors are fighting the fight. This past Wednesday, Paramount and Warner Bros. announced that theaters that could still project 35mm and 70mm film would receive prints of Christopher Nolan's “Interstellar” two days early, on Nov. 5, including 41 IMAX locations. The incentive is driving a few theaters “backwards”: IMAX will reportedly install a 15perf/70mm film projection system inside the company”s flagship TCL Chinese Theater IMAX in Hollywood, CA just to play the film in Nolan's preferred format.
Theater owners aren't thrilled.
“This devalues what we've done,” Joe Paletta, CEO and founder of Spotlight Theatres, told The Hollywood Reporter. Paletta's small Georgia chain went all-digital years ago. Reverting isn't an option. “I can't afford to get the projectors out of the warehouse for two days, and I don't even have anyone to operate them.” Byron Berkley, CEO of Foothills Cinemas in Texas, echoes the point to THR: “It makes no sense to step back in time.”
The digital conversion goes back to those “Phantom Menace” days, but James Cameron gave the movement a swift kick in the ass when he urged theater owners to accommodate 3-D and his event film “Avatar.” In a 2008 interview with Variety, Cameron traces a line through the rapid evolution of digital projection, giving himself a fair pat on the back for making it happen. “D-cinema is riding 3-D to market. And that”s because audiences are seeing something they like and are demonstrating a willingness to pay more for it,” he told them.
Like 3-D, the marketing wizards behind “Interstellar” are embracing film projection as a selling point. The most recent trailer for Nolan's space odyssey trumpeted the 35mm and 70mm release above its proper release date. If 3-D was a future-of-cinema hook for James Cameron's “Avatar,” boasting about film projection gives Nolan's film classicist value. Whether means anything to young audiences, Hollywood's main target, could be a major factor for film's future.
The tiff comes down to art and commerce – a balance that directors hate to admit exists, studios occasionally embrace, and theater owners rarely give a damn about. In his efforts to preserve film, Nolan has appealed to all three tastes. He's an artist first, believing in the beauty of film and its grainy imperfections, but there are technical reasons, money reasons, that film still makes sense. As he told the DGA in 2012:
“For the last 10 years, I've felt increasing pressure to stop shooting film and start shooting video, but I've never understood why. It's cheaper to work on film, it's far better looking, it”s the technology that's been known and understood for a hundred years, and it's extremely reliable. I think, truthfully, it boils down to the economic interest of manufacturers and [a production] industry that makes more money through change rather than through maintaining the status quo. We save a lot of money shooting on film and projecting film and not doing digital intermediates. In fact, I've never done a digital intermediate. Photochemically, you can time film with a good timer in three or four passes, which takes about 12 to 14 hours as opposed to seven or eight weeks in a DI suite. That”s the way everyone was doing it 10 years ago, and I've just carried on making films in the way that works best and waiting until there”s a good reason to change. But I haven't seen that reason yet.”
With his recent self-promotion to programmer of Los Angeles's New Beverly Cinema, Quentin Tarantino has become an even greater ally in the quest to preserve film projection. Speaking to KCRW's The Treatment this week, the “Django Unchained” director made a case for film. Shooting on film is one thing – Tarantino's mantra: “If I can't shoot on film I'll stop making movies” – but projection is equally important, the director comparing the colors of digital video to classic Technicolor IB prints, where dye had been physically added to film (Tarantino mentions that director Roland Emmerich is one of the few who tried and failed to revive the process). He gets a little poetic: “Digital video … is a technology to watch the movie. You can't open up an old video cassette, hold it to the light and see the picture. You need a decoding machine to watch this technology. You can take a film strip and hold it to the light and see the picture […] Part of the magic of movies is that you think you're looking at moving pictures and you're not looking at moving pictures. There are never moving pictures in movies. There are still frames.”
Ultimately, Tarantino is pessimistic about film's future: “If we're acquiescing to digital projection, we've already ceded too much ground to the barbarians. The fight is lost if all we have is digital, DCP presentations. To me that's just television in public.”
In 2011, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” attempted a similar stunt, luring eager audiences with film tech promises by staging an early, limited release on IMAX screens. The pre-emptive run earned $12.8 million in only 425 locations. IMAX made up only 9% of “Ghost Protocol” theaters, but wound up accounting for 23% of the film's box office $209.4 million domestic total.
Of the select theaters getting “Interstellar” earlier, 189 locations will play 35mm prints, while 10 will play 70mm prints. The 41 IMAX theaters will play enhanced 70mm prints.
“Interstellar” opens wide Nov. 7