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Fadeout of Film Stock Reflects Biz Changes

Hollywood still struggles with transition to digital

A few weeks ago I moderated the Q&A that followed the Variety screening of “Jane Eyre.” I asked director Cary Fukunaga if he’d shot with a digital camera or on film, and he replied that he always prefers to shoot film.

The audience applauded. Loudly.

In truth I was flabbergasted. “Yay, film!” Really? Dismissing the possibility the aud held an improbably large number of Kodak shareholders or cinematographers, I was left wondering: Why would a Hollywood movie audience applaud film stock?

Look, I’m an amateur photographer and I still shoot film. I miss Kodachrome. I’m not keen on making the jump to a digital camera (more on that below). But I suspect the cheering wasn’t as much for film itself as for what it represents: a movie business and a moviegoing culture that seem increasingly threatened by the shift to digital. I think Hollywood’s filmmaking community is grieving a world that appears to be rapidly slipping away.

Maybe rightly so.

Film, and the rhythms it imposed, defined the movie business. Even the actors’ unions divided work according to whether performances were captured on tape or film.

Changes from the shift to digital run as deep as the loss of the traditional calls of “Action!” and “Cut!” When there’s no film to consume, no magazine to change, no gate to check, directors often just keep rolling. I already hear complaints that sets are getting sloppy, and there’s too much footage to review and log, but the discipline imposed by film is likely gone for good.

Film also stands for a less globalized, less competitive industry. Animation, post and vfx work can go anywhere there’s a fast data connection. So we’ve seen a race to the bottom. Who can provide the cheapest labor and greatest government incentives? Michigan? Canada? England? India? Bulgaria? Not California, that’s for sure.

Digital home entertainment, from videogames to home theater systems, is eroding the moviegoing culture. Games in particular are drawing young men, who have been the studios’ core audience for years. With vast film and TV libraries available on demand, each new release now competes with thousands of back titles. Once I’m done with my Awards Season screener orgy, I’m likely to be more interested in watching some Hal Ashby movies on VOD than anything new in theaters in January. Is that because home entertainment has become so good, or because studio movies have become so dull? In my case, both. And with box office slumping across the board, I think millions of bored moviegoers might agree with me.

And then there’s the most serious (but least understood) issue: the fragility of digital files. Disks deteriorate, hardware becomes obsolete, software disappears or changes. Properly stored, a hundred-year-old reel of 35mm film can be viewed almost as easily as something shot yesterday. But a 20-year-old WordStar file on a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk? Good luck finding a drive to read it, much less an operating system and software that can open the file. So too for digital image files. That’s a why I prefer film for stills. I trust film to save my photos for years or decades. Digital files might as well be sand paintings by comparison.

So I understand the grief as film, and the business it symbolized, seems ready to go the way of the Moviola.

If it’s any consolation, film isn’t quite dead. Kodak execs say its motion picture stock business is a profitable, viable business.

“We’re still making billions of feet of film and will continue to do so,” Kodak VP of marketing Ingrid Goodyear told Variety. “Right now and for the foreseeable future we still see film to be an important of Kodak’s business.”

Hollywood may be abandoning film, said Goodyear, but “India is still very, very film-centric. It’s very strongly embedded in their industry and their psyche. Interestingly enough, we saw some decline in Japan, that was 2010 versus 2009, and this year we’ve seen some stabilization.”

What’s more, Kodak is seizing the one area where film is unquestionably superior to any digital solution in the market today: archiving. Next year they plan to introduce a black-and-white recorder film offering “hundreds of years of image stability when stored under proper conditions,” as well as an economical color recorder film made specifically for elements that were shot and finished digitally.

So if you’re in the “Yay, film!” camp, there’s some good news for you — if it’s really film you care about. On the other hand, if film is a tangible symbol for the movie business you’ve known and loved, well, you have my condolences. Because, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, that film is going, boys, and it ain’t comin’ back.

BITS & BYTES:

DVD screeners may be as endangered as film. Focus Features is making “Pariah” available to WGA members for screening via Deluxe Media Management’s screener site. At least one other studio is considering moving to streaming screeners. Blu-ray screeners don’t seem to be in the conversation …

Warner’s prestige holiday release “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was the first major studio pic to shoot with the ARRI Alexa camera and a Codes/ARRIRAW workflow. It was also the first pic d.p. Chris Menges shot on a digital camera. …

Sid Ganis has joined Dolby Labs as a strategic advisor … Grass Valley has tapped Colin Hay as its new VP for the Northern EMEA region. He will be based out of the U.K. …

Production services and post company Stargate Studios has opened a branch in Toronto. Kris Woods heads up the new Stargate Toronto. New outpost has a staff of 15 producers, supervisor and artists in Liberty Village. Stargate also has facilities in Vancouver and Los Angeles, and partners with Chilefilms in Latin America as well as companies in Mumbai and Malta. …

Digital Domain Media Group is now licensing its 3D conversion technology. DDMG acquired In-Three, which pioneered “dimensionalization,” and moved the operation to Florida. It will now license patents to other companies. First licensing deal was struck by Samsung, for use in consumer electronics, components, services and software. … RealD has extended its deal with French exhibitor Les Cinemas Gaumont Pathe. Under the new pact the number of RealD screens in the chain will grow to 600. RealD remains the chain’s exclusive 3D provider. … RealD is also issuing special edition 3D glasses for kids in conjunction with the January release of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast 3D”…

P+S Technik’s PS-Cam X35 effect camera is now available to the U.S. market. Company has also opened a technical base in Hollywood at the Television Center Studios… Panasonic’s new 3D camcorder, the HDC-Z10000, has a suggested list price of $3500. Panasonic is claiming the new camera is good for closeups less than 18 inches from the subject … Image Systems has announced two software releases: The new versions of its Phoenix film and video restoration software and Nucoda color grading software now run at 64 bits, improving speed. … Maxon has relaunched its Cineversity training website with improved search and filtering capabilities. … Digital Film Tools has released reFine software for image sharpening, detail enhancement, and pencil and pastel effects. …

Post facility Spice Shop in Bangkok has installed a 4K/2K Scanity film scanner …

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