Cover design for the French film magazine Les Cahiers du Cinéma, “Adieu 35. La révolution numérique est terminé”, November 2011, no 672.

Les Cahiers du cinéma: “Adieu 35. La révolution numérique est terminé”, November 2011, no 672, cover design.

• • •

A small note on nomenclature: as of Nov. 2012, when writing about various film formats –16mm, 35mm, 70mm– I don’t use space between the number and the abbreviation for the unit of measurement since they are used as single word nouns (“shot in 35mm”). I keep the same form when using those film formats as adjectives: “a 35mm projector”. This is consistent with the Associated Press Style Guide.

The fall of 2011 could be said to have marked the transformation of cinematic experience at a global level. It is the moment when a critical mass of American as well as European theatre operators chose to convert to digital cinema. More specifically, it meant that 35mm projectors were thrown away (in some instance, they were indeed actually dumped, thrown in garbage containers) to make place to DCI compliant projectors and servers.

During the last year, moviegoers all around the world saw less emulsion and more pixels. Major films festivals also saw a significant drop in the number of 35mm films they were receiving (up to 80% over a two years period in some instances I know of). For some, this so-called “revolution” was long overdue (I’ve been hearing about it since the early 90’s) for other it was dreaded with a kind of nostalgic anticipation.

Those changes represent an excellent opportunity to learn more about the technical aspects involved in film exhibition (those involved in film production already have a good exposure by the means of “making-of” featurettes and specialized publications). Watching Casablanca in a browser window on a laptop is not the same thing as watching a newly restored 35mm print in an well-maintained and well-run movie theatre. Additionally, saying a movie projection is “digital” really isn’t saying much.

The casual moviegoer has everything to gain from learning what exactly he or she is paying for when he or she goes to watch a movie. To a certain extent, the same goes for hardcore cinephiles, film critics and film scholars: their ability to make sense, write and talk about their moviegoing experience also relies in part on the understanding they have of the exhibition processes.

And indeed, it seems to me the last year was somehow richer in just such discussions: the disappearance of 35mm film, the darkness of 3D projections, the struggling of independent exhibitors when it comes to digital conversion, etc. I believe there is still a long way to go before we start caring about images quality the way we care about the food we eat, but at least the resources at our disposal are more abundant than they were ten years ago. The bottom idea is not to be dogmatic about those issues, but more simply to learn enough to make informed decisions about how we choose to enjoy movies.

Below are some links relevant specifically to the transition from 35mm exhibition to digital exhibition. But first, I’d like to draw some attention to one resources in particular, as I believe it is one of the most relevant available at the moment: Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies by David Bordwell, 2012. It started as a series of expertly researched blog posts published on his blog Observation on film and art. However, as of May 2012, it became a seriously augmented digital book available for download as a PDF for a small fee (US$3.99).

Although the original blog posts are still available online, the book is much more: it was significantly re-written and offers a lot of additional material. One can learn more about the book here (is has the table of contents, excerpts, technical details, blurbs, etc.). Here’s a short description of the book:

“It was the biggest upheaval in film exhibition since synchronized sound. Between 2010 and 2012, the world’s film industries forever changed the way movies were shown.”

This is the opening sentence of Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies. Written in lively and accessible language, it tells the story of how the recent revolution in film projection came about. It also situates the digital change in the history of American film distribution and moviegoing. […]

Written by David Bordwell, an award-winning teacher and researcher, Pandora’s Digital Box provides both a snapshot of the changes taking place at this moment and a long-term history of American film culture.

The book is derived from a series of weblog entries on For the book, the original website entries have been rewritten, merged, and updated. The author has gone beyond the entries to provide deeper and wider financial and historical background, adding some 22,000 words of new material. The result now reads as an independent, coherent study of the digital transition. A final section of references provides weblinks to important documents, sites, and commentary.

David Bordwell also wrote about the process of creating this digital book: “Pandora’s digital book” (May 17, 2012). As I said, a lighter version can still be accessed online. Here are links to all the eight original blog posts in chronological order of publication:

  1. “Pandora’s digital box: In the multiplex”, December 1, 2011;

  2. “Pandora’s digital box: The last 35 picture show” December 15, 2011;

  3. “Pandora’s digital box: At the festival”, January 5, 2012;

  4. “Pandora’s digital box: From the periphery to the center, or the one of many centers”, January 11, 2012;

  5. “Pandora’s digital box: Art house, smart house”, January 30, 2012;

  6. “Pandora’s digital box: Pix and pixels”, February 13, 2012;

  7. “Pandora’s digital box: Notes on NOCs”, February 16, 2012;

  8. “Pandora’s digital box: From films to files”, February 28, 2012.

  9. [UPDATE–May 19, 2013] David Bordwell has written a follow-up to his Pandora series: “Pandora’s digital box: End times” May 12, 2013.

    Today, a year after Pandora’s publication, everybody knows that 35mm exhibition of recent releases is almost completely finished. But let’s explore things in a little more detail, including poking at some nuts and bolts. As we go, I’ll link to the original blog entries.

Additionally, one can explore the following resources. I’ll try to update this list with further relevant material as I find it. Newer links are on top.

  • The Atlantic: “With 35mm Film Dead, Will Classic Movies Ever Look the Same Again?” by Daniel Eagon, November 22, 2012.

    In June, director Martin Scorsese tried to show his 1993 film The Age of Innocence at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor for the past 40 years and a three-time Oscar winner, called Grover Crisp, the senior VP of asset management at Sony, for a 35mm print. But Sony not only didn’t have a print, it couldn’t even make one. “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.”

  • NPR – The Picture Show: “The Waning Art Of The Projectionist” by Claire O’Neill, November 10, 2012. About a photo series by Joseph O. Holmes documenting the disappearing craft of the projectionist.

    This is one of many stories about machines replacing humans, as Holmes explains: “I’m working against the clock with the whole series because a lot of these theaters are converting to digital projection — which does away with a lot of the interesting stuff in a projection room.”

    “The Avon Theater” by Joseph O. Holmes, from his Booth series, 2012
  • One can to watch a newly released documentary on the issue at hand here: “Side By Side” by Christopher Kenneally, 2012 (IMDb, Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes). A. O. Scott wrote a review of the film for The New York Times: “Finding Drama in Newfangled Filmmaking” (August 30, 2012). One can also read Part 1 of an excellent accompanying piece written by John Bailey (ASC) over at The American Society of Cinematographer website: “SIDE BY SIDE: Part One—A Point of View” (Sept. 24, 2012) and “SIDE BY SIDE: Part Two — Filmmaker Comments” (Oct. 8, 2012). John Bailey offers a very well informed analysis of the arguments at hand as well as an interview with director Chris Kenneally. Here’s an excerpt from his comment:

    Late in the film there is a montage of news stories announcing that Panavision and Arriflex will discontinue making film cameras. So, the film bookends the perception by general viewers that film is already on life support. How would the non-filmmaker viewer know that there are movie cameras over 100 years old that can shoot film that was manufactured only last week, or that 70mm. film is still alive with Paul Thomas Anderson’s meditative The Master. There are “equal time” efforts given to film in Side By Side, especially in the comments of veteran cinematographers and editors who point out what is being lost in the rush to what A.O. Scott calls “digital utopianism.”

    Below is a short summary of the film retrived fom the official website. It’s followed by the official trailer. The documentary can be watched online via iTunes, Amazon, VUDU (among other options).

    SIDE BY SIDE, a new documentary produced by Keanu Reeves, takes an in-depth look at this revolution. Through interviews with directors, cinematographers, film students, producers, technologists, editors, and exhibitors, SIDE BY SIDE examines all aspects of filmmaking — from capture to edit, visual effects to color correction, distribution to archive. At this moment when digital and photochemical filmmaking coexist, SIDE BY SIDE explores what has been gained, what is lost, and what the future might bring.

  • A few months ago Film Forum (New York) had the great idea to run program of films both in 35mm and DCP format to let the viewers see (if he or she could) the difference for himself or herself. The presentation of the program is still available online: “This is DCP”

    Since its inception 25 years ago, Film Forum’s repertory screen has presented classic films in the best possible 35mm prints, premiering nearly 1,000 new prints and restorations along the way. (On this calendar alone, you’ll find forty-five 35mm prints, ten of them spanking new). While we’re more than ever committed to showing classic films on film, the tremendous advances being made in transferring classics to DCP (Digital Cinema Package), the industry standard, just can’t be ignored. The best DCPs scan original negatives at such a high rate that all of the attributes of a photochemically-produced 35mm (or even 70mm) print — the detail, color density, film grain, etc. — are vividly re-created and even exceeded. But is watching a DCP the same experience as watching a film print? The jury is still out, so for this one-week series, we’ve chosen the crème de la crème of classics on DCP and have invited Sony Pictures’ Grover Crisp, one of the true giants of film restoration, to explain things on opening weekend. You be the judge.

  • Related to Film Forum’s “This Is DCP” program, see “With a clutch of screenings, Film Forum makes a case for the switch from film to digital projection, and tries to soften the blow” (by Miranda Popkey, Capital, March 5, 2012) and “DCP S.O.S.: The digital juggernaut hastens the last analog picture show” (by Doris Toumarkine, Film Journal International, Sept. 26, 2012)

  • The New York Times: “Film Is Dead? Long Live Movies. How Digital Is Changing the Nature of Movies” by Manhola Dargis and A. O. Scott, Sept. 6, 2012.

  • The Village Voice: “This Is DCP”: The Big Screen Test” by Leah Churner, February 29, 2012.

  • Indiewire: “We’re About to Lose 1,000 Small Theaters That Can’t Convert to Digital. Does It Matter?” by Michael Hurley, February 23, 2012

  • Ficam Press Release, January 16, 2012.

    2011 : Violent basculement vers les caméras numériques. Le support de tournage film 35mm est à 31% de films d’initiatives françaises (FIF) de fiction en 2011 (2 191 739 mètres de pellicule négative ont été vendus cette année) contre 60% en 2010, laissant une large place aux caméras numériques grand capteur, puisque celles-ci sont désormais utilisées sur 55% des projets en 2011 (17% en 2010).

  • Film Journal International: “Thanks for the memories: It’s the end of an era as 35mm film declines” by David Hancock, December 23, 2011.

  • A.V. Club: “Sweet emulsion: why the (near) death of film matters” by Scott Tobis, November 22, 2011.

  • The New York Times: “Film Is Dead, What Else Is New?” by A.O. Scott, November 18, 2011.

  • “From Celluloid to Digital” by Ambrose Heron, November 15, 2011

  • The issue from Les Cahiers du cinéma which illustrate this post is interesting in many ways. If you read French, it’s worth a good look: “Adieu 35. La révolution numérique est terminé”, November 2011, no 672, especially pp. 3-43. I thought they did a decent job in giving a balanced view on an issue that often tend to be reduced to a less interesting “for-or-against” argument (except maybe for the title of the issue which is greatly exaggerated: the so-called “digital revolution” is ongoing, not over).


Subscribe to our newsletter

This newsletter serves one purpose only: it sends a single email notification whenever a new post is published on, never more than once a day. Upon subscribing, you will receive a confirmation email (if you don’t, check your spam folder). You can unsubscribe at any time.