Is it all romance and poetry and fine points, this distinction between watching a film projected digitally and watching it on 35 mm film, on a projector, with the shaft of light emanating from the booth?
There is no empirical answer to that question. I mean, I have my answer: No. It is not a fine point. I crave the light. There is magic in it. There is no magic in the clinical glow of the digital projection system. There is only an estimated annual billion-dollar savings for the studios.
Digital projection can look pretty sharp, and we've long learned to live with it, because often there is no alternative in the marketplace. But like audio wonks who go on about the warmth and fullness of vinyl, I will always make room in my heart for how I fell in love with film in the first place.
For several years the major film studios have been clear in their mission to abandon 35 mm in favor of distributing their releases digitally. There's been no official corporate statement, because no studio wants to be known as the first to abandon film outright for the more profitable digital delivery system. But this week the Los Angeles Times reported that Paramount Pictures is the first to call it a day. After "Anchorman 2," no more Paramount titles will be released in the U.S. on 35 mm.
According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, 92 percent of the nation's 40,000 or so movie screens have made the conversion to digital. In some overseas markets, notably Latin America, the pricey changeover from film projection to digital has been more gradual; "Anchorman 2," among other titles, will still go out in both formats in many other countries.
In 2011, I wrote about the digital takeover, focusing on one of the Midwest's great remaining drive-ins, the Galva Autovue, located in what used to be a cornfield in a town 160 miles southwest of Chicago. Its owner and operator, Justin West, is one of the mighty 8 percent, faced with two choices: Convert to digital projection. Or close. The Autovue's website notes the crossroads this way: "BTW, the first shoe has dropped as one Hollywood studio, Paramount, has announced that Anchorman 2 will be their last 35 mm film release in the USA. Stay tuned!"
In a creative industry built on disagreement, one aspect of the movies cannot be argued. It is this: Digital happened fast. In the summer 2011 Scott Dehn of Golden Age Cinemas, which owns the Libertyville 1 and 2 and the McHenry Outdoor Theater, told me that if film goes the way of the dodo, "then maybe we end up playing classics all summer long. Those prints will always be there." Many exhibitors have since reported a scarcity of prints, and a reluctance on behalf of the studios to let those prints circulate.
I called Dehn this week. "Uh, yeah, I was wrong. I was way off," he said, with a chuckle. "If you want to remain a first-run theater you gotta go digital, and right away. I booked 'Anchorman 2' on Dec. 18 and Paramount told me: 'Just so you know, this is the last 35 print we're doing.'" Last summer, Dehn found that booking his treasured, and popular, "throwback" titles on 35 mm for the drive-in had gotten increasingly frustrating. "Young Frankenstein"? No prints available, 20th Century Fox told him. Digital only. And with that film, a deliberate and silvery filmic ode to Universal Pictures horror films of the past, film beats digital.
Dehn's fortunate, however. In a recent contest called "Project Drive-In" sponsored by Honda, the McHenry Outdoor Theater won a digital projector worth about $85,000. The conversion of the McHenry drive-in, along with the Libertyville two-screen indoor operation, is under way.
Chicago is home to a surprising number of exhibitors, programmers and curators devoted to showing 35 mm or 16 mm prints simply because, for now, they can. The new $6.5 million Northbrook Public Library auditorium, opening in spring 2015, isn't neglecting film; the two venues it'll house will be capable of both digital and film projection, according to multimedia manager Steve Gianni.
Before closing for the renovation in March, Gianni's venue is going out with a Feb. 26 presentation of "The Last Picture Show." On 35 mm.
Over at Facets Cinematheque, founder Milos Stehlik must adapt for digital projection or rethink his entire operation.
"I'm not happy about it. But of course, it's inevitable," he said. Facets shows a lot of its independent titles via Blu-ray projector, but even that, he says, "is almost a thing of the past." Fifty years from now, he says, "if somebody cares to write an historical analysis of changes in the film industry, the two most bizarre aspects are the speed at which fixed media — a DVD disc, in other words — lost favor as a format of delivery. And secondly, how quickly 35 mm ended. It's astonishing."
Currently between venues, the film-fanatical Northwest Chicago Film Society's Becca Hall said this about film vs. digital: "I could probably wax poetic about the light, and the machinery, and the fact there's someone in the booth. But it's hard to find the language to describe it. I wonder if it's more like religion: Either you get it, or you don't."
For those who get it, Gene Siskel Film Center spokesperson Karen Durham notes that the 14-part "American New Wave" retrospective beginning this weekend will be presented entirely on 16 mm or 35 mm.
For now, in Chicago, the shafts of light aren't entirely ghosts of the past.