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

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


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.

"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?"

"Timing" used to be a crucial step in preparing a print for release. Film is a photochemical process based on many variables. The stock itself could change from batch to batch. Chemicals used for processing, the temperatures at which they were used, even water used for rinsing were different from lab to lab.

Once a film had been edited, and its negative was ready to be printed, the lab's timer would work with the cinematographer, and in some cases the director and other filmmakers, to "time" or expose each shot and scene. As in still photography, the timer could brighten or darken a shot or scene, and manipulate to an extent its colors. Detailed notes were made for each scene; they would be referred to if the lab needed prints in the future.

Switching from one lab to another, or from one stock to another, would necessitate a completely new timing and a new set of notes, one of the reasons the process is so expensive.

Instead of timers, digital post-production has colorists who perform many of the same functions, including adjusting exposure and color levels. When films were first digitized for broadcast and home video markets, colorists aimed for standards of brightness and color saturation that were often at odds with filmmakers' choices. They opted for less contrast because TVs had trouble reproducing highlights and shadows, for example. Films that looked good enough seen on a VCR in a consumer's living room suddenly displayed errors in other formats. In some cases those early transfers are all today's colorists have to go by when digitizing repertory films.

Even films protected by copyright are in trouble. The UCLA Film & Television Archive has made a public appeal for money to preserve films starring Laurel and Hardy, one of cinema's most famous comedy teams. RHI, which currently owns the rights to the films, reportedly refuses to fund their preservation.

For film distributors, it's hard to justify the $5,000 to $10,000 it now costs to print a 35mm black-and-white feature*. When Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming for New York's Film Forum, complained about the astronomical costs of B&W film prints, his friend Hade Guest of the Harvard Film Archive replied, "You're no longer in the film business—you're in the Fabergé egg business."

Digital formats change so rapidly that restorations can quickly become obsolete. 2K scans used to be the industry standard; 4K, which offers more visual information, has become more prevalent. But at the CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas this past spring, vendors were showcasing laser projectors, a format that will be available commercially in a few years. "Think about the theater owners who have just spent $2 billion converting to digital," Schoonmaker said, "and now they're being told they'll have to convert to laser in five years?"

Film archivists face additional problems. Digital has turned out to be a fragile archiving format. Information can be lost if hard drives aren't maintained properly. Data has to be transferred, or migrated, as hardware specs and software change.

Digital archiving is also more expensive than film. One study found that a 2K scan of a feature film would require just under two terabytes to store. In fact, digital archiving is so difficult and costly that Kodak has just announced film specifically designed for archiving digital formats.

Here's an indication of how dire the situation has become. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the Oscars, held "the first-ever 'Film-to-Film' Festival," from September 27 to 29. It is an outgrowth of the Academy's "Project Film-to-Film," an initiative designed "to take advantage of the current, but threatened, availability of film stock."

In other words, a film festival celebrating film itself.

In the meantime, it's viewer beware. To celebrate Cinerama's 60th anniversary, earlier this fall Arclight Cinemas showed 12 Cinerama productions, some in the original three-strip process, at its Cinerama Dome theater in Los Angeles. How The West Was Won was screened in authentic Cinerama. 2001: A Space Odyssey, on the other hand, was a DCP presentation of the 2K scan: not exactly a Blu-ray, but the master used to make the Blu-ray. As author Mike Gebert put it to me, "Is that all there is to project 2001 with these days? That's sad."

* This post originally stated that it now costs $50,000 to print a 35mm black-and-white feature. It also incorrectly stated that Sony can no longer print The Age of Innocence; it can, just no longer at the original lab, Technicolor. We regret the errors.

The first paragraph of the article has also been rewritten to reflect that Schoonmaker later said that her request to Sony for an Age of Innocence print was for Martin Scorsese's personal collection, not for a screening at the Museum of the Moving Image. A screening of the film was held at the Museum of the Moving Image using an archival print provided by Sony.