With 35mm Film Dead, Will Classic Movies Ever Look the Same Again?

Beloved 20th-century movies—and their distinct aesthetic—could be in danger.

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Correction appended

This year, Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese's editor for the past 40 years and a three-time Oscar winner, called Grover Crisp, the executive VP of asset management at Sony, for a 35mm print of Scorsese's 1993 film The Age of Innocence for the director's private collection.*

"He told me that they can't print it anymore because Technicolor in Los Angeles no longer prints film," Schoonmaker recalled. "Which means a film we made 20 years ago can no longer be printed, unless we move it to another lab—one of the few labs still making prints." (Age of Innocence has since been printed in another lab).

Welcome to the digital world, movie version. With major studios like 20th Century Fox switching to digital prints by year's end, businesses that used to make and support celluloid—labs, shippers, and suppliers—are shutting down or shifting gears. Fuji is ending its production of film stock, while Kodak, in the throes of bankruptcy, is cutting back on its film products.

What does this mean for classic-movie buffs? More low-resolution screenings of DVDs in repertory theaters, fewer old films overall to see, and the potential loss of a wide swath of our cultural heritage.

Only a fraction of repertory titles have been transferred to Digital Cinema Packages (essentially hard drives with files of movies). Warhorses like Singin' in the Rain and Lawrence of Arabia will always be upgraded to the latest digital format, of course. But how about a B-thriller by Anthony Mann? Or a Western by Budd Boetticher?

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, as Doc Films Programming Chair Maxwell Frank found out when trying to assemble a Coen Brothers retrospective at the University of Chicago. However, if a collector will supply a print, Fox will be happy to charge its usual licensing fees.

But studios and archives are also reluctant to loan films because projecting them eventually destroys them. Each pass through a projector, no matter how well maintained, leads to scratching and fading. When I tried to screen 35mm materials at the Library of Congress, Mike Mashon, head of the moving image section at the Library's Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia, told me that, "Every 35mm print now has to be considered an archival print." In other words, they can't run through a machine.

"I was used to hearing, oh well, maybe films made in the '40s or '50s, but our film?" Schoonmaker said, referring to titles that have become unavailable. "And it's not the only one of our films that is in this situation. What really worries me are the lesser-known movies."

And film buffs are worried not just about the lack of digitized titles, but how they are being converted. Schoonmaker for one has been appalled by some of the digital "restorations" she's screened.

Warhorses like Lawrence of Arabia will always be upgraded to the latest digital format. But how about a B-thriller by Anthony Mann? Or a Western by Budd Boetticher?

"I saw a digitized version of a film that David Lean made during World War II, and it looked just like a TV commercial that was shot yesterday," she said. "It was wrong, the balance was completely off. Originally it had a slightly muted look, and now here were all these insanely bright blues."

Schoonmaker believes that the colorists who have been trained in the last 10 or 15 years "have no idea what these movies should look like anymore." But she isn't opposed to DCP's on principle. Technicolor films like The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp couldn't have been restored without digital methods. The Red Shoes looks the way it does now because Scorsese, Schoonmaker, and Bob Gitt from the UCLA Film and Television Archive could take the time to compare their work to prints from Scorsese's collection and the BFI archives.

"We do the same thing on our films today," Schoonmaker said. "When we made Hugo's DCP, of course everybody is in there tweaking the color: the cinematographer, the editor, the director. But what happens with films that weren't made just recently? Who's going to supervise these DCP's if the filmmaker's dead, and there's nobody else like the cinematographer or the editor or somebody who knows what the damn thing looks like and can go in there and work with the color timer after he's done his first pass?"

Presented by

Daniel Eagan is the author of America's Film Legacy, a two-volume guide to the National Film Registry.  He writes about film for Smithsonian, The Nation, Film Comment, and his blog Film Legacy is tracking the last days of photochemical film.

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