In an All-Digital Future, It’s the New Movies That Will Be in Trouble

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Photo: Walt Disney Pixar

With our Sound and Visions series, Vulture explores the future of movies and the movie industry. We hope you’ll plug us directly into your cerebral cortex.

The speed with which digital cinema took over the world has been nothing short of astonishing. Back in 2007, researchers forecasted that around 50 percent of the world’s movie screens would be digital by 2013 — which seemed like a pretty sci-fi prognostication at the time. In fact, by the end of 2013, the figure was closer to 90 percent. Last month, Christopher Nolan made news by actually daring to release Interstellar early to some theaters on 35mm (and 70mm) film. Within a few years, photochemical film has gone from an industry standard to a novelty act.

Progress, right? Digital files, as we’ve been told over and over again, don’t decay and fade and damage the way celluloid film does. The movie looks exactly the same the 100th time it’s projected as it did the first time. No rewinding. No lost reels, scratched prints, or pesky splices. You can store films on one smallish hard drive and easily copy them to another. Making a DCP (digital cinema package) of a film costs around $150, whereas striking a film print costs about $1500. Plus, the DCP can be shipped around the country more easily and cheaply than huge, heavy, clunky film reels. That has saved studios and distributors untold amounts of money — and, indeed, the studios were the ones who pushed theatrical conversion to digital hardest, in some cases refusing to make film prints available for theaters.

But when it comes to preserving movies for the long haul, the digital revolution may turn out to be something of a catastrophe. “At this time, the longevity of digital files of moving images is anybody’s guess,” says Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator at George Eastman House, one of the nation's most significant motion-picture archives. “We do know that it is much, much shorter than the longevity of photochemical film.” If hard drives aren’t occasionally turned on, he notes, they start to become unusable.

“Digital preservation is really just an oxymoron at this point,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. “It’s really just putting plus and minus electronic charges on plastic — and that plastic has an extremely short half-life. So that most digital media, even if you take it and store it correctly, is probably not going to last more than eight or ten, maybe 15 years.” By contrast, with 35mm film, “we just need to put it into a cold, dark, dry place, pay the electricity bill, and it will last for 500 to a thousand years.”

In one of the most famous examples of the perils of digital preservation, when the makers of Toy Story attempted to put their film out on DVD a few years after its release, they discovered that much of the original digital files of the film — as much as a fifth — had been corrupted. They wound up having to use a film print for the DVD. “That was the first major episode to draw public attention to the fact that digital files are a challenge when it comes to conservation,” says Usai. (Somewhat hilariously and almost tragically, a similar fate came close to befalling Toy Story 2, which nearly got nuked when someone accidentally hit a “delete” button.)

The fate of Toy Story highlights a sad irony of the digital revolution: It’s the newer movies that are in trouble. For a long time, it was assumed that the real loser in our rapidly approaching all-digital future would be older films shot on celluloid, as they would have to be digitized at great cost in a world where movie theaters had forsaken film prints. (Horak estimates that only about 2 percent of UCLA’s 350,000-plus print archive has been digitized.) “My museum has preserved over 28,000 films, representing the history of cinema,” says Usai. “And it’s all largely photochemical. We try to make them available in digital form. But as long as the film itself is taken good care of as an object, I’m not worried, because if I lose the digital file, I can create a new one. But when we deal with something that was born in digital form, all we can do is migrate the digital files as often as possible.” And when you consider the sheer number of films that are out there, that requires technology and resources that go beyond what nonprofit organizations like film archives are able to handle. In other words, new movies that were never on film should be worried about what will happen to them in the future.

The physical deterioration of drives and discs and chips isn’t the only thing digital filmmakers need to worry about. Digital files are also prone to become outdated, with software upgrades and new programs that render previous ones obsolete or unusable. “We are still in the developmental stages of this digital technology, and formats are changing every 18 months to two years,” says Horak. “And many of these digital formats are not compatible with each other.” And each change in format can mean a cost of between $10,000 to $20,000 per film. (Meanwhile, movie theaters that converted to digital are in a similar conundrum, with formats and industry standards changing and each new wave of very expensive projectors breathlessly touted at tech conventions. By contrast, a movie theater could, with proper upkeep, use the same film projector for decades.)

Part of the problem, of course, is that preservation isn’t a for-profit endeavor. Movie companies, as they never cease reminding us, are businesses, and the idea of spending a lot of money and space to keep a bunch of old movies in storage probably seems like a waste of resources to a cost-cutting executive. But take a somewhat longer view, and the situation changes. “There’s this notion, which is not true, that digital is very inexpensive,” says Horak. “Filmmakers and studios are saving a lot of money in production and post-production costs because of digital, and that’s a good thing. But because of that, many people don’t really understand that they’re putting their assets at risk by wholesale transferring to digital and then not keeping the originals.” He adds: “This is not a new problem. In the 1970s and '80s, some film companies took all of their motion-picture film and transferred it to ¾-inch video, which was thought of as a preservation medium. They threw away their originals! And ¾-inch video was not a good format. In fact, it was a terrible format! This is happening with digital now. They’ve already sloughed off their nitrate collections, and there are actually discussions in some of the studios to get rid of their 35mm collections as well.”

Neither Horak nor Usai are complete pessimists in this regard, however. For starters, film may not be as dead as some seem to think. Archives around the world have discussed the idea of pooling their resources and manufacturing film themselves, if and when companies like Kodak or Agfa or Fuji go out of business. And the truth is that when it comes to digital technology, we’re still at the beginning, Horak notes. It will develop further, and sooner or later, there will be other strategies for the long-term preservation of digital material. “I even saw someone discussing the idea of shooting it all up into space and then waiting for it to come back around again,” he says. “That sounded like pure science-fiction, but who knows?”

So, despite the terrifying example of what almost happened to Toy Story and Toy Story 2, the big digital films are probably safe. You can bet that James Cameron and Fox are likely making sure that all the digital files associated with Avatar and its upcoming sequels will be duplicated many times and securely placed in multiple locations; that’s a multi-billion-dollar property, after all.

But what about everyone else? What about all those smaller, low-budget films that were lured by the promise of digital into shooting, storing, and projecting exclusively on video? What will happen to them over the course of what is sure to be multiple format changes? Is somebody making sure to turn their hard drives on every now and then to make sure that the files are still usable? Have they been distributed into multiple locations? Will their producers and distributors remain solvent enough over the years to make sure to update their files, or to splurge for a film print?

One hopes so, because the story of cinema is the story of discovery. Movies once considered afterthoughts — think of B-movie Westerns and noirs — or flops — think of It’s a Wonderful Life — can, over time, become beloved classics. A print of a film long forgotten might turn up in a Norwegian archive and get revived. That may not be possible in an all-digital future, where moving-image files will need regular maintenance and upgrades to keep them viable. A forgotten movie, in other words, will be an extinct movie.  

Celluloid is far from a perfect medium, but ironically, all those splices and scratches that we used to see as problems now seem like strengths: You can scratch a piece of film and it can still run through a projector. You can lose a frame or two — hell, you can lose an entire reel — and the rest of the film will still remain intact. Indeed, many of the great classics of the silent era were restored and reconstructed from multiple, incomplete film elements; usable parts of one print found in one corner of the world could be joined together with usable parts from another print found elsewhere. Not unlike with books, the simplicity of the physical medium held the key to its longevity. “Five hundred years from now, someone could look at a strip of film and probably reverse-engineer a projector from it,” says Horak. “Not that it would ever last this long, but if somebody looked at a DVD 500 years from now, they wouldn’t know what the hell it was.”