Facets Exclusive: Projecting and Protecting Celluloid in Chicago in the Digital Age

Contributor Sean Duffy takes a look at the culture of film projection in Chicago, fronted by the Northwest Chicago Film Society’s Celluloid Chicago Blog.

In 2015, Digital Projection is king. Almost all theaters, big and small, have made the switch from 35MM projection to digital in just a handful of years.

For many movie goers, this isn’t a noticeable change, but for many cinephiles, it’s a disaster. Digital projection has come a long way in recent years, but it’s still not comparable to the raw beauty of celluloid. There’s something human in its grain, its imperfection. When you see film projected, you’re not seeing millions of pixels; you’re seeing actual light as it passes through a printed image. Something beyond resolution.

The industry claims that digital projection, and digital cinema in general, is much cheaper than film. But the cost of switching over to digital has led many small theaters who can’t afford the conversion to go out of business. With movie ticket prices continuing to go up every year, why isn’t that supposed cost-cutting saving theater-goers any money?

Since its creation in September 2013, the Celluloid Chicago Blog, a project of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, has been letting Chicago cinephiles know about movie screenings in town that are actually being projected on film — 35MM usually, but also 16MM and 70MM. From well known theaters like The Music Box to microcinema venues like The Nightingale, the blog is constantly updated and full of great showings.

We talked to Kyle Westphal of the Northwest Chicago Film Society about the blog, the future of film projection, and the reason it’s still reveled in the digital age.

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The Celluloid Chicago blog is doing some wonderful work, giving even microcinemas a place to promote their screenings on film. As far as I’ve been able to tell, your blog is the only one of its kind in the country. Why did you feel it was necessary to create such a blog? Who do you find to be the kind of audience that goes out of their way to see film projected? Is it just a small niche of cinephiles? Are any young people bothering to show up? In 15 years, is anyone still going to be around that cares?

There’s a lot of generalized sentiment in support of 35mm. Ask almost any programmer, in Chicago or elsewhere, and she’ll tell you that maintaining 35mm projection is very important on a personal level, on an institutional level–but the calendars don’t always reflect this. So we think it’s important to compile these listing–not as a scorecard or judgment or anything, but because it’s impossible to talk about this stuff unless you have data. Venues aren’t always consistent in describing the screening format; maybe they genuinely don’t know whether the studio will ship a print before the calendar has to be posted online or sent to the printer. But we have lots of projectionist friends around town and we keep our ears to the ground. Basically, if someone is going to go to the trouble of booking a print, the rest of Chicagoland deserves to know about it.

The audience that cares about film projection is definitely younger, on the whole. I think a lot of older film-goers have just accepted the transition with a shrug. It’s not really a nostalgia thing–the opposite, in fact. It’s so common to hear these condescending refrains that skewer millennials’ supposed ignorance–“You know, we didn’t have Netflix in my day. Do you even remember VHS? We used to have these things called LPs.” Young people are really sensitive to medium specificity, and to the idea that the medium is an intrinsic part of the art.

Many, such as director Mike Leigh, have embraced digital cinema because it’s “democratizing”. No longer do filmmakers need exuberant funds from studios to make and distribute films. Films can be made on an iPhone and then watched on one too, without any middleman. Is a reverence for film, both as a recording and a screening format, inherently elitist or even classist? Why not embrace new technology that gives so much power to the people?

If people want to shoot a project digitally, who are we to stop them? If they want to master new, ever-evolving technology, that’s great. Artists are always going to seek out the new.

At the same time, you have to maintain a certain critical mass for film to be viable. If nobody is shooting film, then it’s very difficult to maintain a laboratory. And those skills just vanish, right? You have people who have put in decades perfecting this technology. If we abandon film today, and decide tomorrow that we made a mistake, we can’t just conjure it all up again. Do you want your film projected by a projectionist who hasn’t been employed for two years, whose skills have atrophied?

Finally, it’s a mistake to assume that digital technology is always more democratic. We’re talking, very often, about proprietary software, proprietary file formats. How can you preserve that content for posterity? Sure, you can make a movie on an iPhone–but you can’t pretend that Apple isn’t a middleman. This isn’t just about production; it’s about access as well. The Atlantic ran a great piece about this recently–what happens to your iTunes library if Apple goes out of business? What happens to your digital locker if Amazon goes bankrupt?

And we can throw around words like ‘elitist’ and ‘classist’ about film if we want. But it doesn’t change the fact that film was very widely used for more than a century. We might think that film is expensive and cumbersome now, but it was an accessible, popular medium for so, so long. It was used by radical groups like the Workers’ Film and Photo League and Third World Newsreel. We have a century of film to excavate–we haven’t begun to understand it at all. This medium touched so many parts of our lives: home movies, medical films, avant-garde films, educational films, documentaries, newsreels. The corpus of celluloid cinema is too wide and unwieldy to be digitized. That’s not elitist–that’s a recognition that the immense cultural value of collections that have been built up over decades. Is a library an elitist institution if it has five thousand unique films but the means to digitize only a handful of them?

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One of the reasons digital projection has taken over the industry so rapidly is that it’s supposedly cheaper than film. The process of creating and distributing 35mm prints is very costly compared to just sending out hard drives. At the same time, the cost of installing a digital system is very expensive, and lots of small theaters haven’t been able to afford it, many having since gone out of business. Is digital really that much more affordable? Or is it a one-sided thing where studios save money but theaters and consumers end up paying more?

Well, as Christopher Nolan pointed out recently, if digital is such a great cost-saver, why haven’t those savings been passed on to the consumer in the form of lower ticket prices? It’s been a tremendous investment for theaters, but the savings mainly accrue to the studios. Distribution is very cost-intensive, but we’re really talking about marginal costs in the grand scheme of things. Is digital distribution so cheap that it makes a flop into a hit? If you’re spending $200 to produce a tentpole, and another $100 million to market it, forgoing film isn’t going to push you into the black. The digital conversion is as much about ideology as cost.

How do acquire prints now that they’re not being widely distributed? What’s that process like?

Nothing is really that different, from the distribution standpoint. Perhaps a few more hoops to jump through, but people are usually pretty understanding. Until all these prints are destroyed, might as well rent them out, right?

And prints are still readily available from private collectors. Of course, film collecting has never been a legal hobby, strictly speaking. If a studio throws a print in a dumpster and someone scavenges it, officially the studio would call that theft. But the studios also care about asset protection and the long tail of intellectual property–and every studio has been saved by film collectors who managed to hold onto stuff that a previous studio regime thought wasn’t worth keeping. Studios have restored films on the basis of materials borrowed from these nefarious collectors. How many prints sitting securely in archives right now were ‘stolen property’ at some point in their lives? So it’s a complex relationship.

70MM is starting to see a bit of resurgence with films like The Master, Interstellar, and Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming The Hateful Eight. 70MM is also still used a lot for IMAX projections. Do you think it’s possible for 70MM to return as format that gets people packed in theater seats again, offering an experience that’s no way comparable to watching something at home?

You know, some people do have 70mm projection capacity at home. Not naming any names.

But yes, I think there is a lot of potential with limited 70mm engagements. The studios and the multiplexes are trying a lot of gimmicks to resuscitate theatrical moviegoing: wider, reclining seats; mega-tickets; so-called “Premium Large Format” exhibition; 3-D; IMAX. Why not 70mm? But you have to have a sense of showmanship about it. Give tours of the projection booth. Put out strips of 70mm film in a case in the lobby. Engage the audience.

One of the things I love about film projection is that it adds a sense of liveliness that is not there otherwise. It’s imperfect and human. It ages. In your mind, will it ever be possible for digital projection to achieve this same sort of aesthetic, or will it be lost if the film format dies? And if it does die, what will be the impact on cinema as an art form?

Sure, digital projection ages: files get corrupted. The projection issue comes down to money: theater chains want to keep labor costs down. To the extent that the digital conversion helps that, they’re happy about it. Read what the National Association of Theater Owners says about union issues, minimum wage, health care. These aren’t big-hearted humanists.

Read more of Kyle’s thoughts on film on the Northwest Chicago Film Society Blog.


Author:  Sean Duffy is a writer, filmmaker, and performer. Last year, New City Magazine named him one of the “Top Five Emerging Chicago Poets of 2014”. He has one of those website things. This autumn he is the Marketing Assistant Intern at Facets.

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