In the story, Jim Healy, director of programming at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque, shares his concerns about the digital future, particularly the effect it could have on the ability of independent theaters like The Belcourt to sustain vital repertory programming. If studios begin to deny access to their archived 35mm prints, he fears, repertory theaters and their audiences will be shut off from most of cinema’s history.
After a chat with someone of Healy’s expertise, though — he spent nine years as an assistant curator at one of the country’s most prestigious film archives, the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. — the cutting-room floor is no less informative. Or in this case, disconcerting.
Having spent nearly a decade working in a veritable treasure trove of cinema past, much of Healy’s concern has to do with preservation.
In cinema’s younger days, few, if any, in the industry saw value — cultural, financial or otherwise — in making sure the films of the day were carefully preserved. As a result, many early films were lost, including the majority of the silent era. (Martin Scorsese’s preservation-and-restoration oriented nonprofit The Film Foundation puts the ratios at 50 percent of American films made before 1950 and 90 percent made before 1929, lost forever.)
In the time since, research has yielded reliable methods for preserving film stock for the long haul. But the reliability of digital preservation remains unknown.
“The study of 35mm preservation really doesn’t start to ramp up until about 30 years ago," Healy says. "But within those 30 years, we were able to determine that stored at the right temperature, at a steady temperature, a polyester or acetate 35mm film stock could last several hundred years. But there’s just not been enough time or enough research done on digital to know. We don’t know about degradation. Everything from a DVD to a high-level DCP format, we don’t know what the shelf life is.”
Healy says studios are actually quite smart about preservation. Whether a movie is shot digitally or on 35mm — right now, he says it’s about 50/50 — they’re preserving it on film.
As more and more theaters transition to digital projection, though, many preservation experts worry that studios will stop this practice. While in the not-so-distant past a film print constituted the original source material needed for duplication, as movies become almost entirely shot, distributed and exhibited digitally, the file on a computer becomes the source. At that point, the need for a film copy could be gone, giving way to reliance on as yet unproven digital preservation methods.
A 2007 study by the Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked into the matter. They consulted with experts from the motion picture industry to the military and published a report — The Digital Dilemma, which can be purchased for download at the Academy’s website — concluding that “[t]here is no digital archival master format or process with longevity characteristics equivalent to that of film.”
This is precisely what keeps Healy up at night.
“The danger of all this digital preservation is that you put everything into this Ethernet, computerized cloud where everything is stored,” he says, “but one viral disaster could potentially wipe years and years of film history out.”