Let's stop calling them films. The Brattle and Coolidge Corner, months after successful Kickstarter campaigns, have upgraded their projection systems to digital technology, meaning that every one of the Boston area's first-run movie houses has made the conversion. The Brattle has even fashioned a DCP Debut repertory series, named after the format used to store digitally projected films. Running from Monday through the Fourth of July, it's designed to "explore" the new technology. For years, these independent theaters have cultivated an audience through a steadfast commitment to film, but now they're forced to sell us on the alternative. Yes, 35mm equipment does remain at the Brattle and the Coolidge, as well as at the Somerville Theatre. But the writing's on the projection-booth wall.
"Theaters like the Brattle talk about showing movies 'the way they are meant to be seen,' " notes Ned Hinkle, creative director there. "And we have had to, kind of, redefine what that means." Hinkle almost uses the word "film," but caught himself. He was right to do so. It's become a misnomer. Over the past few years, multiplex giants like AMC and Regal have changed to completely digital modes. Most of the first-run films that the Brattle now shows are exhibited digitally, too. And the Coolidge recently had its first week of completely digital programming: seven days passing without a single thread of film catching the light of a projector. From the consumer's point of view, film is almost as dead as laser disc. For the first time, there have recently been days where you simply couldn't see a newly released film on 35mm in Boston.
Moviegoers have assumed digital was a natural upgrade, like VHS to DVD. Film was just another remnant of the analog era ready to be tossed away. They've also assumed all films would be photographed digitally anyway. But they're wrong, about all of it, that film was going away and that digital was an upgrade. Digital is a lot of things — a way for studios to avoid printing and shipping costs, a way for multiplexes to cast off trained projectionists and leave many a booth unmanned — but its superiority was, and is, still a tenuous argument. Years after the transition began, it's still not out of the ordinary to show up at a multiplex and find that half of the features being exhibited originated on good old-fashioned, high-resolution 35mm film. Studios and exhibitors have decided that digital is good enough for consumers, but directors of all stripes still prefer the deep blacks and vivid texture of film stock.
Commercial filmmaking titan Christopher Nolan is on record, incessantly, fighting for the viability of celluloid, constantly declaring that film offers a quality superior to any digital format, and that the motivations for the switch are entirely profit-based. Quentin Tarantino has taken it a step further: threatening to retire, seeing none of the cinematic culture he fell in love with in the DCPs that grace our multiplexes; vehemently disappointed that so few moviegoers were able to see "Django Unchained" the way he had intended it. (The Coolidge and the Brattle were able to show the picture as he wished, on film, but AMC and Regal theaters could not.) When I interviewed Harmony Korine about his "Spring Breakers," shot on 35mm, and asked how he felt about the fact that very few viewers would see it that way, he simply sighed: "It's unfortunate."
We're not just talking about "art" movies or "auteur" directors, either. While giant corporate studios are telling theaters to convert to digital or die, as 20th Century Fox did in an infamous memo last year, they are still producing movies on film, full speed ahead. Todd Phillips eschewed digital to shoot "The Hangover Part III" on 35mm. J.J. Abrams shot "Star Trek Into Darkness" on film, as did Justin Lin with "Fast & Furious 6." The Matthew McConaughey sleeper "Mud" was shot on celluloid, as were comedies like "Peeples" and "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone." Each time these films are transferred and projected digitally — which means almost every time — they're divorced from their original vision, the colors dulled, the blacks washed out, their film grain repurposed as digital noise. "Anything that is shot on film is going to look better projected on film," stated Mark Anastasio, program coordinator at the Coolidge. "That is fact. And it is very sad that that is not happening."
Hinkle, the Brattle, and the people driving the repertory film business hope the public doesn't feel so strongly. That's what DCP Debut is all about. Playing "benchmark" films like "Jaws" and "La Dolce Vita" and "Badlands" digitally, Hinkle aims to find out what audiences are losing by transferring these celluloid classics to hard drives — or if they even care. The problem with fighting back against what's being lost is that what we're losing is extremely hard to articulate. The difference between film and digital is "difficult to define," Hinkle admitted. The series is "as much an experiment, for us, as it is a coming-out party."
Hinkle has studied industry recommendations and is playing the best of the best of DCP transfers. While some films are transferred and projected with top-quality "4K" digital presentations, others are transferred at the lower-resolution "2K," and some even are projected via consumer-grade Blu-ray discs. The term "digital projection" offers not a definition but myriad potentially disappointing possibilities. So while the multiplexes often offer poorly projected 2K transfers, the Brattle hopes to stun audiences with picture quality above and beyond what you get for $12.50 at the chains. For studied eyes, disappointing results have become the norm.
Thanks to erratic projection standards, misplaced 3-D lenses, overextended projector bulbs, and other cost-cutting measures, movies often look truer to their intended visual design at home, on Blu-ray, via a carefully calibrated television, than they do at the theater.
"My personal take [on digital] is that it's a little strange, to see it so . . . flawless," Anastasio noted, trying to express how some moviegoers can feel when watching a strip of images run through a projector. Digital "looks great, but it's not film. I don't know how the public is going to feel. Are people going to miss the flicker like I will?"
Hollywood gambled that audiences don't care how their movies are shown; that moviegoers aren't going to miss that flicker. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, at least on the repertory scene, it's a draw. Anastasio described one instance, at a "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" screening, where he offered the sold-out crowd a choice: a crunchy, decades-old, beat-up film print or a pristine digital projection. The roar in favor of the print was almost unanimous. Later he had to announce to a packed midnight crowd for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that it was being presented via their new DCP technology. Anastasio was booed.
Hinkle believes in the power of the communal experience as the number-one draw of moviegoing. In a crowd, "things that are funny are funnier, things that scary are scarier," he said, arguing that the experience itself is the intangible that makes the movies entrancing, as opposed to film. "There is an emotional vibe."
Both the Coolidge and the Brattle will continue to employ professional projectionists, even during days of digital programming. Hinkle promises that side of quality control isn't going anywhere. "You can't just have a staff member run up there and push a button," he said, "you need a professional."
But, as even Anastasio admits, quality control can go only so far in the face of something as beautiful as seeing a great film on film. It's something the Brattle, Coolidge, and Somerville continue to offer; but how long they'll be able to do that is out of their control. "I think people come out, specifically for a lot of these old titles, because they are watching film. And slowly, I think, awareness is building, that this is a rare format. I feel like in five years, people are going to be looking back, thinking, 'Oh God, what did we do?' "
Jake Mulligan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.