I attended a screening of the film “Side By Side” which documents the very heated topic of the film industry’s digital conversion. In it, a number of mainstream directors such as Robert Rodriguez, George Lucas and James Cameron discuss the advantages of digital. Their takeaways include real time re-shooting as opposed to filming then reviewing in a screening room. Instant playback with digital recording saves production time and improves work creativity on set. DI Colorists can manipulate color saturation in very specific areas of scenes. Production crews benefit from not having to transport film to remote locations. So the creatives benefit, but so does production on set. As a former film festival organizer I see a huge advantage to converting to digital.
Let’s say you’re a filmmaker in Spain with one original copy of your 35mm film–in just a metal canister to protect it during its transport to the United States. This one thinner than cardboard can holds your life’s work, maybe your first film; maybe your Oscar contender worthy film and you have no choice but to ship that one piece of your life internationally, not 100% sure the plane won’t crash in the ocean or catch fire or who knows–hit a mountain. Your work may be lost forever.
Another scenario: You’re the organizer of a festival in charge of budgets (like me). You have films coming in from five Latin American and European countries like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Chile or Spain. Shipment isn’t just costly but it’s risky so you have to spend on the shipment of large film canisters and secure insurance charges of 50 films (worst case scenario, but still). What if the plane goes down, what if the can is mishandled and let’s not mention the stress involved in the process. I’m exaggerating a little of course, but you get the point. Shipping a DVD instead is a much more secure, cost efficient and stress-free transaction for the organizer.
Screeners, the film previews, can and are being viewed online a lot now. During my last year at Cine+Mas I scouted a Chilean film by Nicolas Lopez titled “Que Pena Tu Vida” on Twitter of all places and asked the filmmaker to send a copy for consideration. He was super ahead of the game–sending me a link to the screener online. This might sound old school now but an entire seventeen months ago this seemed completely revolutionary. Just like a lot of technology, I mean we were barley introduced to the luxury of facetime on our iPhones way back then, remember?? It’s not that long ago, but so much has been upgraded in digital distribution since then. You can imagine how much more efficient the programming process is with this nifty upgrade. There is zero wait time to consider courting a filmmaker.
Day to day operations during the actual festival benefit immensely as well. Lugging around film canisters takes man power and skilled projectionists, which becomes a non-issue with feather-light, user-friendly DVDs. The new industry standard consolidates three parts of the budget. Costs for shipping/insurance, day-of transportation and projection–all almost eliminated–which is especially important for many non-profit film festivals that increasingly run the risk of closing their doors.
According to this LA Weekly article, the studios are helping finance the conversion of multi-screen theater houses but smaller theaters are in danger of not weathering the switch. Yes, improving technology is disruptive and it’s a shame. A ton of video stores didn’t survive the VHS/DVD conversion in the early 90s, like my very own family owned video store, but the smaller film houses can survive by becoming awesome repertory theaters! Cinespia for example makes a killing every summer at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, screening classic film. With the right programming and event planning, small theater houses can give 35mm classics a second life.
Ultimately, digital is a step forward. Sure the pixel capture doesn’t quite emulate film grain texture but this is constantly improving like all software technology does. Companies like Sony and Canon make a fortune off of it getting better every year. Cameron and Lucas touched on that fact in the film, so did Rodney Charters during the Q&A panel. It will all eventually improve as technology always does.