Progress Not Perfection: The Work of Ariel Schudson

No Cigarette Burns: Why Film Will Never ‘Die’


This work was initially published as an OpEd piece in addition to my regular column, and may be found here at the original publication site at 

Back in May of 1897, when his cousin fell deathly ill, the press erroneously reported that it was none other than Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) himself who was unwell to the point of expiration. To correct this, Twain responded with a letter stating most famously: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Today, over 100 years later, I am kindly borrowing Twain’s response to those journalists, and writing to the press on behalf of cinema. Guess what, True Believers? The report of film’s death is an exaggeration.

 Now hooooold on. Before you get angry or frustrated, before you hit that comment button and begin to argue with me, please hear me out. I have something important to say. I realize that my stance on this may not be the most popular one, but it comes from a place of lifelong love and dedication to the cinema.

Before we  discuss the “death of film,” we need to define a few words in order to ensure we’re all on the same page.While it may seem like a simple phrase, from my standpoint, as of late, it seems that people are using it interchangeably  to discuss format and experience and we need to clear this up.

What do we mean when we say “film?” Are we referring to 35mm? DCP? Seeing Big Trouble in Little China for the first time in a theater? Even if most of the articles being printed today are referring to a format that is on its way out, I believe the use of the term “film” is causing people to confuse the technical with the experiential. No one, I repeat, no one, will ever be able to kill Film. It is a forever thing. When we enter a theater, we are not there to see a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) or five reels of 35mm polyester film. We are there for a moving image experience. We are there for a story. Unless you are going into a theater specifically to gauge the grain content, investigate the color correction results or other technical task, your only goal should be to indulge in cinematic entertainment. Or not. Maybe you won’t be entertained! Maybe you’ll hate the film! And if so, you can walk out if you think it sucks. The film might offend you, put you to sleep, make you want to write the filmmaker an angry e-mail telling him/her that you want that 90-120 minutes of your life back because he/she wasted it. But only if you let it. If you spend the entirety of your time inside a theater concentrating solely on the materials the experience was committed to, then you will miss the best part of Film: the experience.

We are at a very critical moment in cinema. As we make the inevitable (and yes, it is inevitable) transition between analog and digital, we must be very careful that we maintain a healthy balance between having an educated knowledge of the technical details of a given film’s physical make-up and production content, as well as its enjoyment and entertainment value. It’s a very tender space to occupy and a fine-line that we all must be aware of.

It has come to my attention that the vocabulary we are using to discuss the technical, digital conversion from 35mm to digital cinema is one of alarm, panic and absolutes. Whether it is in the film archivist/preservationist community, amongst film fans, or with journalists, the lay of the land seems to be that cinema is coming to a close, nothing is good anymore, and that with the end of 35mm film comes the end of Film itself. The amount of anxiety being expressed and energy being expended on what I call “film fatalism” seems to ignore the fact that we are simply in a time of transition.

Hey, I get it. Change is scary. C’mon- who liked puberty, right? Part of the fear of moving forward is simply a lack of education and access to that education. I know how lucky I am. As an archival student and moving image archive community member, I have direct access to many reputable, seasoned professionals who can answer any questions I may have about this transition, , what it might mean, and for whom. But not everyone has this access. Thus…fear and death dialogue reign supreme. Our lexicon stays within the extremes and there is no middle ground or attempt to find one. It’s all or nothing.

But we do have a choice. We do not have to continue with this train of thought or manner of speaking. Instead of approaching this new age of technology with fear and reproach, instead of rejecting it instantly because it does not match up to what we know or what we are used to, maybe it is time to make the conversation less exclusive. Maybe it is time to open up the media landscape to a multitude of formats and ask ourselves why it is that we are militantly against a variety of technologies being available in our own lives. I openly admit that I struggle internally with issues of nostalgia and holding on to what once was. But I often wonder when it comes to the analog versus digital discussion, are we being romantic or realistic? Is our nostalgia healthy or fetishistic?

Among the many reasons I love 35mm and 16mm film, one of them is because I like what is tangible. I like touch. I like face-to-face conversations better than texts or emails, and I strongly believe that human contact has concrete power. But there is an immense amount of opportunity available with the onset of the digital world. We are currently producing more film content than we have ever produced in the entire history of visual media. Without these new technologies, not only would film archivists end up starring in some of the most horrifying episodes of Hoarders you’ve ever seen, but you would also have to watch as your favorite film ended up trashed.

So let’s go over this one more time, for the folks in the cheap seats: 35mm is not dying, it is just changing its form. And while it is true that we will lose some titles as we go about making the transition, we are going to have to accept one thing here and now: We just can’t save everything…and maybe that’s okay, because we don’t need everything. As the world moves forward, so do we. The film world is changing and we are changing, but as long as we have a solid, dedicated group of people who honestly cannot live without the moving images that tell stories, we’re going to be just fine.

Okay, so now we’ve covered the “film is not dying” part. While it is true that 35mm film is being played less and less, and it will eventually stop getting made (especially with Fuji and Kodak having announced plans to get out of the game), the only way Film itself will die is if we let the theaters themselves die. This, actually, is where we are at the biggest risk of losing our film culture and seeing something die. Movie theaters are a “use it or lose it” proposition, whether they are 35mm reel-to-reel, or digitally projected; whether they are in your local mall or on your college campus; whether they are first-run or arthouse/repertory.

The issue isn’t the “death of film” as much as it is the “death of theatrical viewership.” I will love, adore, worship, attend, and program beautiful 35mm prints for the screenings I do until I can no longer do so. But I’m not sure that’s enough anymore. We are going to have to modify our viewing habits if we do not want to kill the very thing we love. VOD, Netflix, free screenings, these things are nice, I’m not saying give ‘em up, but can you imagine a world without the option of going to the movies? You might have to someday.

We’ve distinguished between format and experience and looked at film fatalism, so let’s get back to Mark Twain and the issue of misinformed journalists and the media. One of the primary elements contributing to the culture of fear surrounding the digital transition is misinformation. For example, did you know there is no such thing as cigarette burns when it comes to a 35mm film print? Ask any projectionist. Well, any projectionist that is, except fictional ones named Tyler Durden. This was an invention for Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) that has now become part and parcel of our film culture. Those marks that signal the change of a film reel are actually simply called “changeover cues” or “cue marks.” Not quite as Brad-Pitt-exciting, eh?

Although this fact is of general annoyance to projectionists and film nerds of a certain type, Fight Club’s only real impact was the establishment of incorrect vocabulary. Where the real harm gets done is through poor journalism. A few years ago, this may not have made such a difference. But not anymore, not in the digital environment we live in. One article containing wrong information will spread like wildfire within 5-10 minutes of being posted on Facebook or Twitter, affecting any kind of educational opportunities that might have been available. A poorly researched article has consequences: Readers will believe what is written, not necessarily what is the truth. Then they will pass it along to everyone they know. Hello, viral American education!

A recent piece in The Atlantic became quite notable for this very thing. Centering on punchy quotable factoids that held little to no veracity and maintaining a highly dubious litany of quotes from well-respected people, this article was off and running the minute it hit the Internet gate. Huge controversies about the article’s content came rolling in the minute people started reading it, as it stated that there were no 35mm prints of the 1995 film Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese) to be found. People freaked out. “No 35mm prints of The Age of Innocence? Film truly is dead! What are we going to do? If this can happen to a Scorsese film…” The Atlantic piece had a Chicken Little effect on many people I knew. The comments and Internet explosion were incredible. And yet…when I read it, something didn’t sit right with me. The last section mentions screening a DCP of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) and has a quotes from someone musing about that possibly being the “only way it could show.” But I had just seen a 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey at a 70mm Festival over the summer. Something was rotten in the state of journalism.

Lo and behold, a few days later, I returned to the article for some reason. I discovered corrections made and apologies at the bottom. They had corrected the price of printing a black-and-white 35mm feature (from $50,000 to between $5-$10,000) and assured readers that there are indeed 35mm prints of Age of Innocence. But the point is that the reporter didn’t do his homework. The article stated that Sony could not print the film anymore but…Sony could’ve printed 20 more prints if they wanted to, just not at Technicolor, their original lab. But just because it can’t get printed at Technicolor doesn’t mean it can’t get printed somewhere else…

Unfortunately, despite these corrections, the initial viral nature of the article led many people to believe that there were no 35mm prints to be found of the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990). Fascinating. That film just screened here in Los Angeles on January 5…in 35mm. There are other issues, but why bother? This article is just one example. It is a strong example, but an example nonetheless. It is not the only one; it wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last. It shows the kind of apocalyptic thinking and fatalistic vocabulary that we need to actively work against. The terrible part about an article like this is that people, who read it once, generally won’t go back to see the corrections and apologies, so what’s done is done. First moral of the story: get it right the first time. Second moral of the story: educate yourself and others.

Things are coming fast and hard now in the film world. Much moreso than when it was just analog. In many ways, it has democratized the playing field. With the advent of the digital, more people are able to be filmmakers, larger amounts of information can be stored in smaller areas, and we have gained the ability to do greater and better restorations on films that are badly in need of our help. What we all need to work on now is a way to bridge this gap and be open to each other. It’s not an us vs. them situation, or a Big Studios vs. Small Theaters thing. Things just aren’t that simple. Just remember- even a black and white movie is made up of dozens of particles of shades of grey. Why should we be any different?

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