The speed with which digital cinema took over the world has been nothing short of astonishing. Back in 2007, researchers forecasted that around 50 percent of the world’s movie screens would be digital by 2013 — which seemed like a pretty sci-fi prognostication at the time. In fact, by the end of 2013, the figure was closer to 90 percent. Last month, Christopher Nolan made news by actually daring to release Interstellar early to some theaters on 35mm (and 70mm) film. Within a few years, photochemical film has gone from an industry standard to a novelty act.
Progress, right? Digital files, as we’ve been told over and over again, don’t decay and fade and damage the way celluloid film does. The movie looks exactly the same the 100th time it’s projected as it did the first time. No rewinding. No lost reels, scratched prints, or pesky splices. You can store films on one smallish hard drive and easily copy them to another. Making a DCP (digital cinema package) of a film costs around $150, whereas striking a film print costs about $1500. Plus, the DCP can be shipped around the country more easily and cheaply than huge, heavy, clunky film reels. That has saved studios and distributors untold amounts of money — and, indeed, the studios were the ones who pushed theatrical conversion to digital hardest, in some cases refusing to make film prints available for theaters.
But when it comes to preserving movies for the long haul, the digital revolution may turn out to be something of a catastrophe. “At this time, the longevity of digital files of moving images is anybody’s guess,” says Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator at George Eastman House, one of the nation’s most significant motion-picture archives. “We do know that it is much, much shorter than the longevity of photochemical film.” If hard drives aren’t occasionally turned on, he notes, they start to become unusable.
“Digital preservation is really just an oxymoron at this point,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. “It’s really just putting plus and minus electronic charges on plastic — and that plastic has an extremely short half-life. So that most digital media, even if you take it and store it correctly, is probably not going to last more than eight or ten, maybe 15 years.” By contrast, with 35mm film, “we just need to put it into a cold, dark, dry place, pay the electricity bill, and it will last for 500 to a thousand years.”