Last week, I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown at the BFI Southbank in glorious 35mm, the first time I had seen a film in this format for over a year. The Tyneside Cinema – my local independent cinema and employer – like most mainstream and independent cinemas since the beginning of the digital (projection) age, has switched 99% of its programme to high definition digital (Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom was one of the exceptions last year). Films here are projected in either 2K or 4K depending on the screen one sees the film in and their plan is to have all screens projecting 4K in the near future. And as my job mostly revolves around watching adverts and conducting sound-checks, I have been exposed to film on digital every working day (and some non-working days).
My familiarity with film on digital, coupled with the sheer tediousness of the film versus digital debate which seemed to have exhausted itself within daily and specialist journalism by about 2013, had rendered me a passive acceptor of digitally projected films, especially 4k which I have argued in the past as looking great. It is therefore with some hesitance that I write this note, knowing all too well how banal pieces on 35mm versus digital projection generally appear.
When I was younger, I was a firm believer in 35mm, devoting much time to the consideration of its excellence and forever searching for objective means of bolstering its (my) position as superior to digital projection. I was spending a lot of time at the Star and Shadow Cinema where I was being trained in the art of 35mm projection, a practice which sat on a precipice as 35mm projectors were being increasingly eradicated in cinemas across the country. In my teenage years, I romanticised 35mm, mentioning its warm colours, its greater resolution and sharpness, my love of film grain and the dirt collected on each celluloid frame whenever I had the chance. I was also convinced that 35mm handled movement and motion better than digital, whether this is actually true is still unclear.
The Star and Shadow, before its untimely demise (we are still waiting for its rebirth), was a haven for the cinephile, a truly democratic organisation that cared just as much about its audience and volunteers as the films screened in its 60 seater cinema. Even those that had not established themselves as hardworking volunteers or regulars of the organisation were listened to, and if there was a certain film you were desperate to see – or a whole season of films – such a selection would regularly be accommodated in subsequent programming, and usually exhibited in 35mm. If 35mm was going to live on somewhere, the Star and Shadow was the place.
There was much fanfare a year or so back when Paramount Pictures became the first studio to eradicate the distribution of films in 35mm in the U.S., another grave blow to a format already decimated by the decisions of large photographic and digital film producers Technicolour and Fujifilm to end their manufacture of film stock. This followed their decision to distribute Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street solely in digital formats in December 2013; this film became the first in the history of cinema to be distributed as such. Since the release of The Wolf of Wall Street, the distribution of films solely in digital has more or less become commonplace.
A few months following Paramount’s big announcement there was finally some good news on the fate of 35mm, at least from the point of view of film production: Disney, Fox, Paramount Sony, NBC Universal and Warner Bros all pledged to save Kodak from disastrous losses by agreeing to keep buying a certain level of film stock in the coming years. There have been also the voices of those veteran filmmakers whose love of shooting films and exhibiting in 35mm has worked to reinvigorate the conversation. Yet, it is unclear whether all these promises to save the format – appearing so far just for the enjoyment of those in positions of power – will have any positive outcomes for audiences. And there is also the question whether audiences themselves still want to watch films projected in 35mm in a cinema, as much of the evidence of the success of Netflix, the increase of illegal downloads and the rise and popularity of quality television points to the contrary.
For cinephiles a utopian vision remains that the exhibition of 35mm will undergo a resurgence in a similar vein to vinyl in the past decades, with specialist 35mm havens opening (or continuing their practices) and with certain cinemas incorporating special screenings of popular films in 35mm or 70mm into their programmes, as ODEON’s Leicester Square has with Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight recently. However, such specialist cinemas will still rely on the decisions of distributors to continue the costly practice of storing and distributing 35mm prints. Fortunately, the BFI and Park Circus, to name two large UK distributors of classic, independent and arthouse cinema, are still committed to distributing 35mm film prints, at least for the near future.
My trip to the BFI Southbank – a cinema which consistently has one of the best film programmes in the UK, if not the best, and with the resources to support 35mm projection (from funding, audience interest to access to the BFI’s own archives) – brought back memories of all those days I spent championing 35mm in my youth. At least for me – and maybe for those who had the benefit of seeing films in the cinema before the turn towards digital – 35mm does in fact offer something special after all.