David Bordwell, famous for his colossal contribution to film studies and his virtual monopoly of the textbook market, has released an e-book that examines the causes and effects of the transition to digital cinema. Bordwell attempts the unenviable task of creating a text on a contemporary issue with the authority of an historical study.
Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies examines the biggest upheaval in film exhibition since the arrival of sound: it asks why the change to digital took place, how it affects the film industry, and what the future of film might look like. This is no small task for a 200-odd page book. The project grew out of a series of posts on Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s popular film blog Observation on Film Art. What follows is a brief exploration of some of the issues that Bordwell explores that will hopefully display why his project is so vital.
We like to find individuals to single out as the driving force behind significant historical developments. While this form of hero-worship is a simplification of events too broad to immediately appreciate, it can still be somewhat revealing. Pandora’s Digital Box begins with one name – George Lucas. Lucas was an early adopter of computer aided filmmaking, Dolby sound, and nonlinear editing having been inspired by the success of CGI in Jurassic Park (1993), he decided to start to explore how else digital technology could enhance the analogue world of film. Lucas requested Sony to create a digital replacement for the 35mm camera for the production of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1999) – the idea being that a film captured in digital would be easier to manipulate later as it would no longer be necessary to scan every frame of the 35mm negative. The obvious progression would then be to screen this digitally shot film on a digital projector, removing the need for a 35mm print to be created at all. This final step would create a totally digital cinematic process but it would be the hardest problem to solve, taking until 2011/12 before Lucas’ dream of a fully integrated digital industry would come true.
“The most important thing to remember when thinking about changes in the film industry is that it is an industry first and foremost.”
However, Bordwell highlights that viewing the digital cinema turnover as a revolution led by the heroic figure of the director is not only simplistic but also misleading. Having said this, it is unavoidable that histories of this era will be littered with heroes and artifacts: Lucas, James Cameron, the Arri Alexa, the Red Epic, etc. A more balanced view should recognise the significance of other industries (digital photography, computing, etc.) but also industrial motives (profit), as Bordwell does here in Pandora’s Digital Box.
The most important thing to remember when thinking about changes in the film industry is that it is an industry first and foremost. However you want to dress it up it is the commercial/industrial side of the movie business that get films on screens and bums on seats and, arguably, it is the commercial/industrial forces at play that provide the means for all other types of film production. Despite this fact, Lucas viewed himself as a freedom fighter, breaking down the barriers between filmmaker and audience. In his view an amateur filmmaker should be able to walk up to a cinema and screen their film directly to an audience. His naivety, as Bordwell sees it, masks the true nature of an industry which revolves around control. Whilst Lucas preached the gospel of an egalitarian digital cinema, Hollywood was drawing up a digital business model that presumably included little thought for the amateur filmmaker.
“‘Avatar is coming!’ Get your digital systems now whilst the VPF offer is still on the table or go down with the analogue ship.”
Profit through control has always been the aim of Hollywood, money-making at all costs takes precedence. Their original oligopoly relied on a vertical industry – production, distribution, and exhibition all controlled by a single company (the Hollywood studios). In other words, the Big Five studios (Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century Fox, MGM, and RKO) could maximise profit by creating a wide range of films in their own studios with their own crews and stars, then exhibiting them in their own first run theatres in big cities. Controlling the exhibition meant that you could keep competitors off the screens. Smaller studios such as Universal, Columbia and United Artists lacked one of the three tiers of the industry and thus relied on deals with the larger studios for their films to be seen. This monopolistic practice was found unlawful in 1948 and the area of the industry holding the least control, exhibition, was sold off. After all, it is the producers and distributors who control the product.
In 2002, when it became apparent that digital cinema was just over the horizon, the studios formed the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), a body that would explore and standardise this fledgling endeavour. After three and a half years and $8.4 million the DCI had created a new industry structure for the rollout of digital cinema but, as is to be expected, Hollywood still had control of the product and distribution. It was now down to the exhibitors to get on board.
Exhibition has always been the most financially conservative area of the industry, but with good reason. The risk of adopting new technology and techniques that prove to be failures can lead to financial ruin. The studios, distributors, digital projection manufacturers and the DCI needed a way to sweeten the prospect of an expensive digital conversion. First there was the diplomatic response – the Virtual Print Fee (VPF). This involved the exhibitors signing in to a contract with a third-party who would provide the digital projection system (projector, server, technical support). This equipment would be paid off by the exhibitors but also by the distributors who would pay a fee every time their films were screened.
Bordwell argues that it was immediately apparent that distributors stood to save the most from digital cinema. They would no longer have to pay to make hundreds of prints that would only be used a few times before being destroyed. Now films can be stored on a hard drive which can be reused after the cinema release. On the other hand, exhibitors were going to have to spend big. A new digital projector would cost somewhere in the region of £50,000, which would obviously be a struggle for virtually all exhibitors. The VPF was created to share the costs and savings of the digital turnover between exhibitors and distributors. On the surface the VPF system seems like a pretty good deal for the exhibitors as they were not burdened with all of the costs. But the contracts have provisions; despite them being confidential it has been widely reported that cinemas would always have to screen a digital version of the film if it was available. So no more 70mm screenings of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
The more frontal attack on the besieged exhibitors would be a Trojan Horse by the name of 3D. This time the horse was led by Lucas, Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson at the 2005 ShoWest Conference – a gathering of some 2000-3000 exhibitors from around the world. These great names of commercial cinemas were wheeled out to deliver some news: 3D was coming! Each director told the crowd that from this point onwards the big cinema releases would all be in digital 3D. They promised Star Wars, The Hobbit and Battle Angel (which would become Avatar), and not only would this new technology bring in massive audiences, it would also be justifiable to charge more for tickets.
“Why bother going to the cinema if you can get the latest release directly from The Pirate Bay and watch it on your home cinema?”
The pressure was piled on over the following years, the main party line being ‘Avatar is coming!’ Get your digital systems now whilst the VPF offer is still on the table or go down with the analogue ship. The tactic worked. By the time Avatar was released there were 16,000 digital screens. Its success led to a boom in changeovers and the following year saw a total of 36,000 digital screens. Of course the VPF system would not run forever, exhibitors were told they had until the end of 2012 to sign up. The aim of creating a massive switchover had worked and now the studios could begin to end all production of 35mm prints, thus further reducing their costs.
With the business model and equipment set up, all that was left to do was to start screening. The digital turnover would dramatically change the way in which cinemas work on a day-to-day basis. The new system consisted of a server connected to a digital projector. The cinema staff simply load the film onto the server with a passkey, the KDM, that allows for the films to be unencrypted. This new system removes the need for projectionists as the manager can simply run all the days projections from a single computer. This is fantastic for multiplexes as they can focus on the more profitable arena of popcorn sales.
In his book, Bordwell provides an overview of the situation for all types of American cinemas, from tiny single-screen picture houses, drive-ins, three-screen art house cinemas, the newly formed smart house cinemas (who take advantage of new revenue sources such as screening sport, theatre and opera on their screens) and the multiplexes. One particularly significant change in audience behaviour is the disappearance of the youth market. Why bother going to the cinema if you can get the latest release directly from The Pirate Bay and watch it on your home cinema? Art houses located near university campuses have noticed a dramatic drop in student attendance and are now relying on older generations. This change is occurring simultaneously with a shift in the distribution of wealth in western nations. It is no longer the case that teenagers are the most significant group with disposable wealth; this title is now held by the baby-boomers who can be attracted into cinemas with the promise of organic food, comfortable seats, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012), and a licensed bar.
“The digital turnover will undoubtedly define this era’s stability.”
Bordwell believes that the digital cinema gold rush led to short-term solutions that leave the future of film heritage in danger. As cinema’s are forced to invest through the VPF scheme in expensive digital projection systems, the practicality of keeping a working 35mm projection system becomes more unrealistic. Why spend money keeping both in order when all the new films that draw in the large crowds will only be screened in a digital form. What happens to all the 35mm prints when there is nowhere left to screen them? How can we expect to create a cine-literate audience who are deeply immersed in film culture, and thus willing to regularly visit a cinema, to grow or even be sustained when the wealth of film history is no longer available to them? The solution may be to digitize the existing material held in archives throughout the world so that the films can still be screened. The obvious problem with this is the expense of digitization. Storing 35mm is a passive endeavour that requires a large amount of space with a controlled environment. This allows the films to be secured indefinitely. Digital cinema, on the other hand, requires a huge amount of regular work to ensure that the films remain in a watchable state. Firstly, digital files are incredibly prone to corruption which results in frames of the film going missing or quality being lost. Secondly, the hard drives that store the films have to be regularly powered up to ensure that they remain functional. Thirdly, the hardware and software used currently to screen and store these films will rapidly become obsolete. This means that even if archives spend a huge amount of money digitizing their collection, they will have to repeat the process every few years to ensure that the files can still be accessed and projected. Digital cinema is far from stable.
Pandora’s Digital Box should be compulsory reading for all cinephiles and members of the film industry as it clearly, and provocatively, outlines where our current situation has come from, and the problems that the film industry will face. There are however some specific areas of the book that need to be expanded upon. Most significant is its national specificity, the book deals almost completely with the American market and many of its conclusions are based on that situation. For example, the distribution companies in the UK receive far less of the takings made in cinemas than in the US. This could possibly result in a very different view of the VPF system if UK distributors are paying the same as their US counterparts but for a smaller return. However, the vast majority of conclusions that Bordwell reaches appear to be incredibly relevant and important. As the UK is currently entering a new era of film, heralded by the BFI’s New Horizons for UK Film, it seems to me that the next generation of film industry professionals should be mindful of the implications of the digital turnover as it will undoubtedly define this era’s stability.