35mm

This week, Paramount announced that they will no longer be shipping 35mm prints to theaters. By now, most theaters in the country have made the (extremely) costly jump to digital at this point, which means that theaters that haven’t converted won’t be able to play any new movies from Paramount. Bummer.

This is hardly a shocking development.

Digital projection has been the standard for first-run movies for years now. We’ve only screened one 35mm first-run feature, and that was The Trip back when we first opened in 2011. Since then: DCP, DCP, DCP.

Stacked against clunky analog formats, digital has a distinct practical edge. Digital movies are easy to ship (they come loaded onto hard-drives that we ingest onto our servers), the presentation remains consistent, and the damn things practically play themselves. In the rare case that something goes wrong, it’s usually nothing that the time honored trick of turning the power off and on can’t fix.

You can control them all from iPads, if you have the infrastructure for it. It’s neat.

Despite the advantages of digital projection, though, we play a lot of 35mm at Nitehawk. It’s important to us. Playing a movie in 35mm gives audiences a unique experience. Each print we receive has a different feel that just can’t be reproduced in a home setting. A well-cared for print gives the film a body that’s simply not on a digital copy, it has a lived-in feeling that makes the movie you’re watching feel alive; like a real, tangible object.

Last month, we played a print of Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive. Now, that’s a weird movie, about a Florida crackpot that feeds people to his pet crocodile. It’s a dirty movie, and the print complimented that. Because it was the only one we could get our hands on, the print had Japanese subtitles burned into the image, and the film faded in a way that highlighted the movie’s muddy palate of dark browns and reds.

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Eaten Alive

The print of Night of the Living Dead we played was scratched to hell and smelled like vinegar, clearly deteriorating. On screen, though, Romero’s horror had never looked as dark and foreboding.

Damage can enhance an image, it’s why filters have become so popular in digital photography, sometimes pictures look better when it looks like you found them at the bottom of a box at your grandmother’s house. It gives the image an emotional context, a place in history.

I never gave 35mm much thought until I recently started working at Nitehawk as a projectionist. Being a projectionist is not easy work, and I am terrible at it. That’s why the only 35mm film that I’ve put up on Nitehawk’s screens was a midnite screening of Revenge of the Cheerleaders, and our personal copy of Cocoon 2: The Return. Scratch the print, scratch the movie. Mistime a reel change and you stop the movie dead. Suddenly, the presentation has a human element to it. A computer can crash, but it’s more satisfying to yell at a person.

I don’t lament 35mm’s fall from the standard — the format’s too costly and cumbersome to be sustainable, especially with the decline in people who know what to do with the damn things. That doesn’t make 35mm projection less important though, especially in retrospective programming. This is how we watched movies for 100 years, in the dark with the distant hum of a clicking projector somewhere behind you. It’s romantic.

– Kris King
@KrisKingTornado