Digital vs. Film: Out of Print (2014) + Side by Side (2012)

December 12, 2014 | By

OutOfPrint2014_posterThere are some very striking similarities in Julie Marchese’s documentary on the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, in which the shift from 35mm film to screening digital transfers mimics the change from having people get their movie rental fixes from digital streams rather than bricks & mortar video shops.

In Out of Print (2014), available for free via Vimeo, Marchese details the conundrum in which studios will provide financial assistance to U.S. mom & pop rep cinemas to acquire costly new digital projectors – but all film projecting equipment has to be yanked out, ensuring whatever is screened comes from studio-sanctioned distribution outlets.

It’s a control mechanism not unlike what’s affected home video, in which the venues by which consumers ingest films are no longer dominated by stores or physical media, but digital streams owned by large corporations benefitting from total vertical integration: they own the gear that makes the films which are distributed in some of the cinemas and channels and sites they own.

But is it all a conspiracy, or just a case where an advantage is seen, exploited, and taken as far as possible to proactively position companies in a more secure dominant post as the leading distribution outlets?

Is the switch to digital just a means to exploit huge cost savings – no printing costs, less shipping fees – for the short-term?

Controlling catalogues of titles ensures there’s a library to exploit in any delivery system or media, but parts of that library are relevant to an always-shrinking audience that will eventually become of lesser importance. The regular boxed sets of silver screen stars like Cary Grant or Marilyn Monroe which were exhaustive are now selective, if they even exist on physical disc at all, and in new transfers.

The classic TV series that used to appear on TV and were released in pricey dribs and drabs in season and half-season sets (‘volumes’) are now, if at all, available in mega-sets because there’s no point in teasing people for years, and it’s better to get as much revenue in one shot for the whole lot than in patches. Our hunger to consume has also gone from patiently waiting for annual or bi-annual season sets to binge-watching a series within a few months or less.

Cartoon sets that initially covered chunks of a library come in more selective editions and themed collections, making any hope for a full chronological set dead (unless it’s a mega-set from fan-favourite Shout! Factory, or Timeless Media).

But restricting the ability to project film, while cost-effective, is kind of dumb, because if surviving prints are allowed to languish, they may deteriorate, and what may remain is an aging video transfer that can’t be adapted to a future high-resolution system.

It also fosters a sense that film is old, obsolete, and worthless; a higher-quality cousin to VHS that no one uses because it’s grainy and not as crisp as digital – arguments presented in Christopher Kenneally’s excellent doc Side by Side (2012) from New Video Group.

The most salient point in Marchese’s film is Why can’t both film and digital exist side-by-side? There’s really no excuse to kill film exhibition except to save costs, but there’s no logic in starting that earth-scorching plan from the grass roots level by removing a rep house’s ability to screen film.

A Cinematheque, in its ideal form, has the ability to screen anything – silent, sound, mono, discrete, wide or full-frame, flat or 3D – but it shouldn’t be the only place where films can be exhibited. By removing a rep house’s gear, it restricts the opportunity to see the rare, and experience an actual film print; if not for purists, than for the sake of visual variety, and exposing filmgoers to the existence of something besides HD video.

It’s also dumb to ignore digital and devote a rep house exclusively to film, because audiences are similarly being robbed of the opportunity to see a rare work in a restored form that’s perhaps more accessible on a hard drive than a film print.

It’s a stupid war that isn’t a war; it’s dumb posturing, and the end result is that moviegoers are robbed of choice, of alternative movie-going experiences; and seasoned businesses with a loyal clientele in cities and towns are being squeezed out for no reason.

The villain is neither corporate nor human greed, but stupidity.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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