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Movie Film, at Death’s Door, Gets a Reprieve

31 July 2014

From The Wall Street Journal: :

Faced with the possible extinction of the material that made Hollywood famous, a coalition of studios is close to a deal to keep Eastman Kodak Co. in the business of producing movie film.

The negotiations—secret until now—are expected to result in an arrangement where studios promise to buy a set quantity of film for the next several years, even though most movies and television shows these days are shot on digital video.

Kodak’s new chief executive, Jeff Clarke, said the pact will allow his company to forestall the closure of its Rochester, N.Y., film manufacturing plant, a move that had been under serious consideration. Kodak’s motion-picture film sales have plummeted 96% since 2006, from 12.4 billion linear feet to an estimated 449 million this year. With the exit of competitor Fujifilm Corp. last year, Kodak is the only major company left producing motion-picture film.

. . . .

In the agreements being finalized with Kodak, studios are committing to purchase a certain amount of film without knowing how many, if any, of their movies will be shot on the medium over the next few years.

. . . .

Film and digital video both “are valid choices, but it would be a tragedy if suddenly directors didn’t have the opportunity to shoot on film,” said Mr. Apatow. director of comedies including “Knocked Up” and “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” speaking from the New York set of his coming movie “Trainwreck,” which he is shooting on film. “There’s a magic to the grain and the color quality that you get with film.”

. . . .

Industry experts say the roughly $1 million cost of renting cameras and recording equipment on a movie is roughly the same for film and digital, but that the latter allows for faster movement through the visual effects and post-production processes.

“I’m a huge fan of film, but it’s so much more convenient digitally,” said producer Ian Bryce, whose recent “Transformers: Age of Extinction” was shot primarily on digital cameras.

. . . .

It remains to be seen whether film will find enough adherents to remain economically viable in the years to come, as few young directors still use it. Elizabeth Daley, dean of the school of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, said only one class at her school, advanced cinematography, still trains students to use film.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

One of the side effects of a technology disruption of an existing business is that the product costs of the legacy business go through the roof as customers move to the new technology

Disruptive Innovation

44 Comments to “Movie Film, at Death’s Door, Gets a Reprieve”

  1. Whether they continue to make some film or not, they no longer make the good stuff.

    • I have a nostalgic feeling for Kodachrome 64 because I shot so many images with it.

      However, on rare occasions when I pull out a few old slides, I’m a surprised at how bland they look compared to what I routinely produce with digital.

      • Agreed. Why should I care that a company who didn’t jump into digital with both feet (or head) first is nearly broke? The whole

        …are valid choices, but it would be a tragedy if suddenly directors didn’t have the opportunity to shoot on film,” said Mr. Apatow.

        is nonsense. Why should anyone care about shooting on film when everything is digital now (and let’s be honest, there’s simply no way film can match the ever-increasing resolution of digital).

        • ‘It would be a tragedy if suddenly directors didn’t have the opportunity to shoot on film.’

          Just like it would be a tragedy if suddenly photographers didn’t have the opportunity to make daguerreotypes.

          Or if suddenly writers didn’t have the opportunity to send manuscripts to press that were written with quill pens.

          Or if suddenly songwriters didn’t have the opportunity to cash in on the lucrative market for player piano rolls.

          Whenever I see someone make a remark like this, I know I am looking at a person who has fallen in love with the accidental and lost sight of the essential.

  2. Sentiment is a great reason to keep a terminal business alive.

    • Art, not sentiment. It’s more like not being able to get oil paint anymore because acrylic dries faster. It’s not a technology, it’s a medium.

      But I switched to digital years ago so I have no business being sentimental about it.

      • I’d disagree. With painting, the end product is different, depending upon which paint, canvas, etc. is used. The end result with a movie is the same regardless of medium (and digital is much easier to work with).

        As the article stated, everyone else is out of business, and Kodak’s sales have dropped 96%. What possible reason is there to keep it alive, beyond sentimentality (or some nefarious purpose)?

        • Film stock is just as much an artist’s canvas as the fabric stretched across a board is to the painter.

        • “The end result with a movie is the same regardless of medium (and digital is much easier to work with).”

          No, there actually are differences in color rendition, edge resolution, and so on between film and digital.

          The newer digital cameras are good enough that this isn’t nearly as obvious as it once was — it’s now at the level that it takes an expert eye looking at an image enlarged to the size of a movie screen to tell the difference, but it’s still there. This is somewhat confounded by the fact that most theaters now use digital projectors, so even a production shot on film has been transferred to digital at some point. I guarantee you, though, that an expert still can tell the difference between a shot-on-film, projected-on-film movie and a digital production. That probably doesn’t matter much; most people aren’t experts (heck, most people were happy watching movies on standard def analog TV).

          I did my senior project in undergrad on video editing software, one aspect of which was attempting to make digital video look like film, and also spent a number of years as a lab rat in various film labs. Technology has marched on since then.

          I moved to digital still photography about ten years ago and haven’t looked back. Before that digital wasn’t good enough to suit me (at least not at any level I could afford). Judging from the year given, I’d guess that 2006 was about the time that digital became “good enough” for most Hollywood productions.

  3. A sad end for a great company, especially considering that they invented the digital camera.

    The parallels to the BPHs who hurt digital sales to protect the paper book market are obvious.

  4. To be fair, and this comes from going through film school, there is a certain…not sure how to put this…indefinable factor that makes film a unique medium. The chemistry of how film captures an image produces a different result from how digital cameras operate. Some filmmakers simply prefer how that image looks compared to digital video capture.

    So, it’s not really sentiment, it’s a preference of medium. I’m sure you could get an ultra high-quality 3D printer and some appropriate finishing materials and create a replica of an ancient Greek statue that’d appear no different than one carved from marble 2,500 years ago to 99% of those who walked by it in a museum. That doesn’t mean a 3D printer is superior as an artistic medium to working in marble.

    Now, whether what they are doing now is a good idea, that’s another story.

    • Actually, that would make it a superior technology. The difference is whether or not one prefers more intimate human involvement or not.

      The “indefinable quality” you speak of is a result of sentiment. There’s nothing that film does that digital can’t duplicate, and the only thing that matters with movies is the image on the screen.

      It’s why some people cling to the notion that “movies were so much better then.” Have you ever sat down and looked critically at an old movie like “Casablanca”? It looked like crap, the audio sucked, and the acting was sub-Vin Diesel.

      Edited to add another example: pro sports. People have a nostalgia for sports in the 50’s and 60’s. The game was “so much better then.” The truth is that any of the teams from that era would get roasted by today’s athletes.

      • It’s why some people cling to the notion that “movies were so much better then.” Have you ever sat down and looked critically at an old movie like “Casablanca”?

        Yes, Dan. For four years. In film school. And then for another fifteen years thereafter.

        I’m going to step away from this discussion now, because I don’t want to continue getting angry about this.

        • If you’re getting angry about this civil discussion, you’re proving my point. But sorry to ruin your day.

          • I guess I shouldn’t say “I prefer digital to film in every respect” then?

            It’s kind of like saying to some people “I prefer ebooks to print in every respect.”

            People get angry, Dan. Don’t you know anything by now? Or do you just like to argue?

            (Please say you like to argue. That way we can see who else will get upset ;))

      • If only they would do a remake staring Vin Diesel as Rick Blaine.

    • “To be fair, and this comes from going through film school, there is a certain…not sure how to put this…indefinable factor that makes film a unique medium.”

      Some aspects are definable. Even with good color film you get a certain amount of crosstalk between the color channels. Film grain (for b&w) or dye clouds (color) don’t render details the same way as hard-edged pixels do. The film grains or dye clouds are in different places on two different frames of film, while the pixels are always in the same place on the frame. This can lead to a “smoother” look for filmic motion pictures compared to video.

      For classic analog television, a big part of the difference was in the telecine process. The frame rate for film didn’t match the frame rate for TV, so a number of hacks were used (most commonly, projecting certain film frames more than once, a process called “3:2: pulldown”). That creates a distinctive look. Those who can remember that far back can probably recall a difference in appearance between soap operas and sitcoms (which went to video early on) and high-budget dramatic productions (which stuck with film for a long time).

      Some of these have been overcome with better hardware, some with better software. But there’s still a difference.

    • When you look at the old B&W movies, the black is like velvet. It has depth and texture. It’s not flat black. The chiaroscuro from the great cinematographers of the past is breathtaking.

      I can’t think of a movie in the last 50 years–with the exception of some scenes from Terence Mallick–that are visually so stunning as what was routinely produced earlier.

  5. My husband used to be a projectionist. Like, the guy who keeps the film running through the projector smoothly as you watch the movie. He loved that job, loves projectors, loves everything about old-school movie theaters.

    Even he has embraced digital. The technology that forced him to abandon the career he loved. He recognizes that you can’t stop the advance of technology. We have had many a conversation comparing film to print books and digital filming to ebooks. The parallels are obvious.

    So if even a former projectionist in love with his job could get over it, so should you, Coalition of Studios.

    Keeping film alive for the sake of preserving a medium is valid. Keep making some of it for those who treat film as art. But the majority of producers and consumers treat it as entertainment, and they just want a vehicle for capturing a great story. They don’t care about the nuances of film vs. digital. And digital has its own benefits and nuances, too.

    • “Keeping film alive for the sake of preserving a medium is valid. Keep making some of it for those who treat film as art.”

      This.
      (I have a soft spot for still film – including B/W. But now I own digital cameras.)

      Dan

  6. I’m sure this discussion relates to paper books and ebooks in some way.

    • In the same way they still make buggy whips, there will always be film, print books and vinyl records – as a niche market, perhaps, but still produced.

    • Just more disruption in another of the methods used to tell stories.

      Dan

    • Yes. This is the basically the movie equivalent of ‘ebooks can’t simulate the visceral experience of reading a paper book’.

      I remember when digital video first became popular, the film fogies used to talk about how there was just something so special about only being able to shoot ten minutes of footage at a time, not being able to see what you shot until the next day, editing by cutting up your film and sticking it together with tape, and shooting your movie on silver, not rust.

      Meanwhile, the aspiring directors said ‘Whoah. You mean I can shoot an hour of digital video on a tape that costs $5, see exactly what I’m shooting as I shoot it, and edit on my computer by dragging and dropping files? Where do I sign my soul away?’

      So, now those directors are making big movies, few want to use something as antiquated and inconvenient as film. But the fogies are still convinced it will return, just like vinyl records and paper books.

    • As far as relating to books- Someone made a comment the other day that referenced publishers purchasing paper on what sounded to me like futures contracts. That was the first thing I thought of when I read the article. Those contracts give Kodak something to borrow against for operating capital now.

      I’m not saying this particular deal makes any sense but Southwest Airlines stayed profitable when other airlines were losing money because they had bought fuel on those kind of contracts. I see a lot of it in the farming industry too. Of course none of the commodities I’m talking about are endangered like this film seems to be but it’s not an uncommon thing to see done.

  7. If they spent that money preserving film that’s already been exposed… you know, the vaults of movies disintegrating…

    That’d be a better use of it, in my mind. After all, as Libby implies, the end result is, or soon will be, converted to digital for presentation anyway, no matter the venue.

    Or will this become another vinyl vs CDs? My guess: maybe, but vinyl records seem to be a lot cheaper to support.

    tony

  8. Some smart guy once said that when a new technology replaces the old, the old becomes an art form.

    • Sure. At one time there were a huge number of portrait painters. Most of them weren’t what we’d consider fine artists, but rather craftspeople who cranked out workmanlike portraits to make a living.

      No one has their portrait painted nowadays for anything other than artistic reasons (or perhaps snob appeal).

    • A lot of truth in that quote. I used to blacksmith as a hobby, and for the last few years I’ve been learning to build boats by hand. These exercises are good for the soul but not necessarily practical, and one could argue the inferiority or superiority of craftsmanship vs. modern materials and production lines all day.

      On the other hand, I haven’t owned a film camera since the late 90s and you couldn’t pay me to go back. I guess some people feel about film the way I do about a hand-forged knife or a wooden rowboat.

  9. I can’t really criticize these guys. They’re not asking the general public to support the film industry (well, indirectly perhaps through high ticket prices, but those aren’t going anywhere anyway) and they’re not asking the government for support. The people who make money in the industry and consider film important are the ones propping it up. If James Patterson and Dan Brown decided to pay all the print warehouses and printing presses just to keep them in business, I would be fine with that too.

    • True. And seeing someone work with the old tech can be pretty cool for its own sake, just to teach you a bit about the past.

      There are even a couple of photographers using the old wet-plate system to take photos. Didn’t someone use it at the Oscars, showing us what current actors would look like through the same lens that saw Lincoln and civil war generals?

  10. I think they should concentrate on creating better content and let film die, already. I mean, come on, who really knows the difference now other than a few industry veterans? Viewers certainly don’t.

    In my former life I was a video editor and I thought I could easily spot the difference. And maybe you could back then. But when the pilot for Kiss Her Goodbye was shot, I would have told you it was shot on film—only to learn later that they shot digital.

    I have a semi-trained eye, and couldn’t tell the difference.

    I’m all for sentiment and all that, but shooting on film creates a myriad of problems and costs that can be avoided by using digital.

  11. Well… a few still make buggy whips… but I’m not going to fret about indulging 1% of the 1%ers. I’ve developed a saying… “if you really feel that strongly about it, feel free to take care of it yourself”… We’re talking people rich enough to own their own copies of 35mm and 70mm films, keep same in refrigerated storage and watch same on lovingly maintained theater projectors in their own in-home private theaters.

    I’d rather approach this from a few other angles….

    – Fail-safe retention of knowledge, in case it’s needed. Some ultra stable and resilient documentation of how to make and use film, stashed away in multiple secure heritage vaults, along with a lot of other pre-high-tech related knowledge, just in case we get EMPed or solar flared back to pre-high tech.

    – Micro brewery approach to such. How to create and use such on a small scale. If not now, perhaps when 3D printing, nanotech, etc. allow those who truly care about such to continue to create and use such.

  12. From an artistic point of view, those old mediums do bring a unique quality to a project. When my musician husband recorded his jazz trio Christmas project, he recorded to tape rather than the using a digital recording system like Pro Tools. The recording studio actually brought in one of their interns just to see what it was like to work with tape because it is so seldom used anymore. Was it more expensive? Yes. But it was worth it because there was a warmth to the recording that the digital system couldn’t capture. The results were amazing! 🙂

  13. Faced with the possible extinction of the material that made Kitty Hawk famous, a coalition of airplane manufacturers is close to a deal to keep Aircobraz in the business of producing cotton airplane cloth.

    The negotiations — secret until now — are expected to result in an arrangement where airplane manufacturers promise to buy a set quantity of cotton for the next several years, even though most light planes these days are covered with composite.

    Aircobraz’s new chief executive, Glenn Curtis, said the pact will allow his company to forestall the closure of its Miami, Florida, cloth manufacturing plant, a move that had been under serious consideration. Aircobraz’s cotton airplane cloth sales have plummeted 96% since 1919, from 12.4 billion yards to an estimated 449 million this year. With the exit of competitor Etsy last year, Aircobraz is the only major company left producing cotton airplane cloth.
    . . . .
    In the agreements being finalized with Aircobraz, airplane manufacturers are committing to purchase a certain amount of cotton cloth without knowing how many, if any, of their planes will be covered with fabric over the next few years.
    . . . .
    Cotton and composite both “are valid choices, but it would be a tragedy if suddenly home builders didn’t have the opportunity to cover with cotton,” said Mr. Krankow, maker of homebuilt aircraft including “The Flee” and “The Bleriot,” speaking from the hangar where he is building a “Pieterpol Air Camper,” which he is covering with cotton. “There’s a magic to the grain and the color quality that you get with cotton.”
    . . . .
    It remains to be seen whether cotton will find enough adherents to remain economically viable in the years to come, as few young homebuilders still use it. Elizabeth Day, dean of the school of ultralights at Emery University, said only one class at her school, The History of Flight, still trains students to use cotton.

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