×

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

Tech innovations made basics of 35mm projection easy and safe but also led to degraded prints

With digital cinema ready to send film projectors the way of vacuum tubes and phonograph turntables, let us give a final doff of our fedoras to the advances at the theater that created the final great boom of 35mm — and planted the seeds of its destruction.

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

Projectionists of Hollywood’s golden age had a busy and slightly dangerous job. A theater booth had two projectors, and every 20 minutes, at the end of the reel, the projectionist had to switch from one projector to the other, and thread the next reel. Every couple of hours or so he’d have to (very carefully) replace the carbon arclight rods that burned whitehot inside the projectors, providing light for the screen. Somewhere nearby a motor whirred constantly, inefficiently turning AC power into the direct current for the arc lights. A single movie on a single screen pretty much kept a projectionist hopping.

In the ’60s and ’70s, a trio of innovations inside the booth cleared the path for a Hollywood revolution. Electronics replaced motors for converting AC to DC, making it possible to feed DC power to more than one screen at a single location. Xenon arc lamps replaced carbon arcs and put a sealed, long-lasting bulb inside projectors. Since showing a film no longer needed two projectors, all the reels for a feature could be spliced together and kept on a platter. These seemingly small changes enabled a single projectionist to handle multiple screens. They birthed the multiplex and transformed the “booth” into a gallery with portals to many screens. Perhaps that’s why no one seems to hear when an audience member yells “Focus!” Odds are the projectionist is elsewhere in the gallery.

Multiplexes hastened the era of the ultra-wide release, with thousands of screens and thousands of prints. But with print orders skyrocketing and studios handing over their finished negatives ever closer
to release, Technicolor and Deluxe no longer had time to do a quality check on every print. Bad color and other print problems proliferated.

Tech innovations had made the basics of 35mm projection so easy and safe that a high-schooler could handle a multiplex. But they’d also led to degraded prints that left theater owners grumbling to distributors, even as distribs were looking for a way to curtail the cost of striking and shipping all those 35mm prints.

In the end, film became a victim of its own success.

Related Stories:

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Refugees from the besieged Muslim enclave

    Sarajevo’s True Stories Market: Documenting the Atrocities of War

    Reconciliation and dealing with the tragedies of the Yugoslav Wars has been a major focus of the Sarajevo Film Festival and its CineLink Industry Days event in recent years. The True Stories Market, launched in 2016, aims to connect filmmakers with organizations that are researching and documenting the Yugoslav Wars that spanned 1991 to 2001 [...]

  • Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’

    Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’ Wins Top Prize in Sarajevo

    “Take Me Somewhere Nice,” Bosnian director Ena Sendijarević’s coming-of-age story about a teen raised in the Netherlands who returns to Bosnia to visit her ailing father, won the top prize at the Sarajevo Film Festival Thursday night, earning the Amsterdam-based helmer the coveted Heart of Sarajevo Award. The jury heralded the “beautifully photographed, acted, scripted [...]

  • Khadar Ahmed - BUFO - photo

    Bufo Sets Key Cast for Co-Production ‘The Gravedigger' (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —   Actor Omar Abdi, who starred in the Ahmed-scripted short “Citizens,” and actress Yasmin Warsame, who made her name as a Canadian model, will topline romantic-tragedy “The Gravedigger,” the latest big screen project from Bufo, the Helsinki-based outfit behind Berlinale winner “The Other Side of Hope.” The film follows a Djibouti gravedigger [...]

  • Jacobs Ladder Movie 2019

    Film Review: 'Jacob's Ladder'

    It’s understandable that someone would want to remake “Jacob’s Ladder,” Adrian Lyne’s 1990 head-trip thriller about a Vietnam veteran haunted by fragmentary nightmare visions. I was far from alone in finding the original to be an overwrought but rather thin “psychological” horror film that was more punishing than pleasurable. And it wasn’t exactly a hit, [...]

  • Fiddler A Miracle of Miracles

    Film Review: 'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles'

    Still beloved and routinely revived 55 years after its Broadway debut — including a Yiddish-language version now playing in New York — “Fiddler on the Roof” is a popular phenomenon that shows no sign of subsiding. Max Lewkowicz’s “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” provides an entertaining if hardly exhaustive overview of how the unlikely success [...]

  • 'Weathering With You' Heads for $100

    'Weathering With You' Heads for $100 Million Box Office Haul

    Makoto Shinkai’s animated romantic drama “Weathering with You” passed the JPY10 billion ($94 million) mark in Japan on Wednesday, according to an announcement by distributor Toho. This makes it the tenth-highest earning Japanese film of all time. Since its release on July 19 on 448 screens in 359 complexes, the film has racked up 7.52 million admissions. The [...]

  • Burn review

    Film Review: 'Burn'

    There’s more smoke than fire in “Burn,” a reasonably promising single-location thriller that never quite settles on what it wants to be — a straight-up suspense piece, twisty black comedy, oddball character study, etc. “All the above” would be a tall but not impossible order to pull off. The problem is that writer-director Mike Gan’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content