3… 2… 1… The Countdown to the End of Film on Film

3… 2… 1…  The Countdown to the End of Film on Film

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As a prelude to their annual Oscar telecast, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosts its Scientific and Technical Achievement awards ceremony to honor the scientists and engineers who develop the technology of cinema. This year’s event was held on February 15 at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where nineteen awards were given out. Among them was one presented by Christopher Nolan, director of mega-blockbusters, 2005’s Batman Begins, its 2008 and 2012 sequels, and 2010’s Inception. Not by coincidence, Nolan is also a director outspoken in his preference for shooting on film rather than digital media, and the award he presented was an Academy Award of Merit for “all those who built and operated film laboratories, for over a century of service to the motion picture industry.”

The award was, unfortunately, also a eulogy for film. The 100+ year-old photochemical medium for capturing and projecting movie images is dying an inevitable death. 2014 may see the closing of the last film lab.

(Continued Below)

The trend toward digital cinema is no news. Both as a medium for capturing images and for disseminating them to an audience, film has been used increasingly less since the technology of digital media developed to a point where images on the competing formats were aesthetically comparable to most moviegoers. But lately, the pace of film’s decline is accelerating.

In Film Fading to Black, a 2011 article for media news site, Creative COW, writer/editor Debra Kaufman chronicled film’s diminishing use as a medium for capturing images. Kaufman noted that Arri, Panavision, and Aton – three of the top manufacturers of film cameras – ceased producing them over the previous year in favor of designing and manufacturing digital cameras. Says Kaufman, “someone, somewhere in the world is now holding the last film camera ever to roll off the line.”

As a sequel of sorts to the article, Kaufman’s recent The Last Film Lab? tracks a parallel decline in the use of film as the medium of choice for striking release prints – the film prints screened at movie theaters. Kaufman cites the following death knells:

According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, “as of July 2013, 35,712 screens in the United States have been converted (from film) to digital.” The number for Canada is 2,951, with an additional 64,862 internationally. Screen Digest, a company that researches and analyzes media markets, reported that it “expects the digital format to be in use at 90 percent of screens worldwide” by the end of 2013.

A stylized Academy Leader - the countdown that precedes Picture Start
A stylized Academy Leader – the countdown that precedes Picture Start

Technicolor and Deluxe – the two biggest labs servicing the motion picture and television industries — have as a business mainstay the manufacture of release prints. Between 2011 and 2013, Technicolor shuttered three lab facilities – one in Montreal, one in the U.K., and a third in Glendale, California. An unnamed Technicolor lab exec is quoted: “The release print business is essentially over as we know it.” The exec noted that film lab profits will be scrutinized “on a monthly or quarterly basis.”

Deluxe’s CEO Cyril Drabinsky was equally downbeat, stating, “Over the next couple of years, we’ll reach a point where there aren’t many pictures shot or released on film.” He concludes: “The release print business…(is) not a huge part of our business anymore.”

Peter Bulcke, President of the Association of Cinema and Video Laboratories, remarked that today, 200 to 250 prints are struck for a “big release,” down from thousands in the heyday of film. He estimates that “fewer than 100 prints…(is) not a viable model for any of the laboratories, especially for Technicolor and Deluxe.”

Christian Richter, Film Lab and Studio Relationship Manager for Kodak, indicated that while high-profile studio productions are still often shot on film, “It’s not as much or many as there has been.” Kodak manufactures 55% of the world’s film stock, with Fuji making 35% and Agfa 10%. Kodak won’t disclose the total footage of film they sell, but Kaufman states in her article that between 2007 and 2011, worldwide demand for film stock dropped by 70 percent.

Kaufman also poses the scenario of what might happen if Kodak stops making film stock. The company recently emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with a mission statement of “offering breakthrough solutions and professional services in the packaging, graphic communications and functional printing markets.” There’s no mention of servicing the film and television industry. Deluxe’s Drabinsky commented, “Do they continue providing stock in a declining marketplace? At what point is it no longer profitable for them to do so?”

While not mentioned in Kaufman’s article (as it was posted prior to the event), this week’s annual National Association of Broadcasters trade show and conference in Las Vegas saw the announcement of a handful of new 4K cameras aimed at the film and television market. With imagery employing twice the pixel-count of its counterpart High Definition formats, 4K is poised to be the successor to HD — at least in professional applications. It’s yet another nail in the coffin for film. RED, a company that manufactures 4K cameras already used in feature film production, confirmed at the NAB event that their 6K Scarlet Dragon is forthcoming. Japanese broadcaster NHK screened footage shot with their Super Hi-Vision 8K “Cube” camera.

Back to those February 15th Academy Awards for Scientific and Technical Achievement…

Nearly all the other eighteen awards given out that evening were for innovations in digital filmmaking.

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