Film print distribution down, collateral damage

As print distribution winds down, collateral damage includes projectionists, shippers and film suppliers, but some companies have planned ahead

The end of print distribution of films brings with it not just the close of an era, but also the potential loss of livelihood for many who work both inside and outside of the entertainment industry.

(From the pages of the April 16 issue of Variety.)

According to the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (from March 29), more than 125,000 people are employed in the movie exhibition business, from ushers and lobby attendants to theater projectionists, the latter of which add up to 7,530 employees. Using the current 40,000 domestic screen count and the total number of employees in the theater business, on average, three people are employed per screen in North America.

However, the number at single-screen houses is roughly four to five employees per screen. Once the digital transition is complete, a projected 2,000 screens (of the 5,677 remaining non-digital ones) could shutter, according to one exhibition executive, which could put up to 10,000 theater staffers out of work, based on the four-to-five employee average.

At theaters, the rise of digital means the decline of the old-school projectionist and the rise of the theater manager. Projectionists already have far less to do in multiplexes than they’d had in single-screen theaters of yore. But they still sometimes needed to repair a broken projector or print. Now that projectors are electronic, theater managers run the show — and get on the phone with tech support when gremlins rear their heads.

SEE MORE: Filmmakers Lament Extinction of Film Prints

National delivery services such as FedEx and UPS also will lose significant business, though that biz has been dwindling steadily since theaters began converting to digital over the past five years.

No company embodies the rise and fall of film, though, more than Kodak and its hometown of Rochester, N.Y.

George Eastman’s 1888 invention of flexible photographic film made motion pictures possible. Kodak was considered the Apple of its day, and made more than a few Rochestarians millionaires. (Local legend holds that young George pestered his father’s friends to invest in his photography company, and those who relented became rich.)

Eastman himself wasn’t much interested in the motion picture film business — until he saw British competitor Blair cashing in on the nascent biz by selling his wares to early moviemakers.

Eastman’s company (not yet named Kodak) jumped in and became the dominant supplier of film stock for more than a century. Its stock traded at $80 in 1999, about the time motion picture printmaking peaked.

SEE MORE: Victim of Its Success: Film’s Last Surge Plants Seeds of Its Demise

Today Kodak is bankrupt, its stock is trading at around 30¢ and its name is off the Hollywood and Highland building, now dubbed the Dolby Theater. The company has shed tens of thousands of workers, and while it still depends on the printstock business, it can see that the window for that business is closing.

“I don’t anticipate us working on a new print stock,” says Wayne Martin, Kodak’s film manufacturing-flow manager. He maintains that there’s still a strong pitch to be made for shooting on film or archiving on film, but “from a release print standpoint, there’s less of an argument that film print is a long-term, better viable option than digital.”

Technicolor and Deluxe have made more successful transitions to the digital era, shrinking their legacy film businesses as they both anticipated the end of 35mm.

In fact in July 2011, Technicolor struck a deal with Deluxe, its bitter rival for most of the past century, to handle film printing for its clients. “In my mind at the time, that was the beginning of the end,” says Claude Gagnon, Technicolor’s creative services president. “We started to see a pretty massive decline in volume. We were pretty clear that volume would disappear very quickly.”

Technicolor’s last print plant, in Glendale, mostly strikes Imax prints. Its former North Hollywood location has been repurposed by Universal as a television production studio. And there appear to be no buyers for developers and printers, once absolutely critical to the business, so they’ve been scraped.

SEE MORE: As Film Labs Wind Down Prints Business, Job of Preservation Falling to Archivists

Deluxe, which went through a round of layoffs during the first week of April, will experience more cuts June 1, just before it slashes its printing schedule from a 24/7 operation to just one shift Monday through Friday.

Gagnon admits that there’s plenty of nostalgia for film at Technicolor: “It’s in our DNA,” he says.

But his company and Deluxe have invested in digital services, including computer-generated visual effects, aiming to stay engaged with filmmakers all through production and post — just like the old days.

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