Remember The Alamo? Movies, Markets, and Misaligned Incentives

ALAMO 70mm

Film preservation is rarely a sexy endeavor, the fantasies of archivists themselves notwithstanding. Preserving or restoring a film often requires years of semi-scholastic drudgery—research, grant-writing, lab tests, hair-splitting assessments of continuity and color-timing. The reward at the end of the process is posterity—for the film, not the preservationist, who must be content with providing a sound bite on a DVD extra. (Bonus points allotted if the preservationist is shown at a messy desk, futzing with an ornery reel or holding it up to the light for inspection, like a fastidious jeweler.)

Point being, preservation work is a consummate behind-the-scenes job. On a certain level, that work should be invisible: if the goal is to return a film as close as possible to its original state, then eluding audience detection through seamless tradecraft is a mark of success. Hiding the gulf between disparate source elements and suppressing the ravages of time are laudable, essentially self-effacing, achievements. Film restoration hews closely to the physician’s Hippocratic Oath—first, do no harm. (By this standard, touting a new surround sound remix, digitally removing the intrinsic grain structure of the image, or valiantly intuiting a long-dead filmmaker’s unrealized intentions would automatically command suspicion, to say nothing of colorization, integration of new footage, and the like.) The highest compliment is not to be noticed at all.

The deliberations behind a restoration are even more obscure. They are almost always private and sometimes even proprietary: convincing a foundation that a particular film is culturally auspicious enough to merit underwriting its preservation, persuading a superior to allocate scarce discretionary funds to an emergency salvage project, negotiating a fair licensing agreement with a copyright holder. These are inherently delicate situations, so it’s no surprise that they don’t often unfold in the public square.

Alamo Half SheetThat’s why it’s novel that the preservation status of The Alamo, John Wayne’s large-scale 1960 directorial debut, has aroused so much public interest. For a film not often revived north of the Mason-Dixon line, the perilous survival of The Alamo has developed a broad, social media-abetted following. Last week a friend with no industry affiliation asked me about the ongoing woe of The Alamo at a State Street bus stop.

In some sense, The Alamo deserves nothing less. It’s only appropriate that Wayne’s film leaves this world on a note of public clamor and hot tempers—a parallel to The Alamo’s scorched earth 1960/1961 Oscar campaign that birthed the cutthroat awards season template we still recognize today. Employing the same publicist who’d sold Gone with the Wind two decades earlier, Wayne waged a valiantly Crockett-esque campaign in the trade press, reminding the industry that The Alamo represented a distinctly American feat of epic filmmaking—in contrast to the year’s other major three-hour road shows, Spartacus and Exodus, both penned by newly unblacklisted, unrepentant comsymp Dalton Trumbo. (Fittingly, Wayne’s only other directorial effort was even more provocative: The Green Berets, a pro-Vietnam combat picture released at the height of the conflict.) Ultimately, The Alamo finagled seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, but only took home a single statuette, for Best Sound.

Before diving into #SavetheAlamo, some additional background is in order. Wayne’s Alamo was an elaborate production, budgeted at an astronomical $12 million and photographed in large-format Todd-AO. Through distributor United Artists, The Alamo saw road show bookings in 70mm, but was eventually delivered to general audiences in a shortened 35mm version. The original version—192 minutes, plus overture, entr’acte, and exit music—was cut down to 161 minutes. As was customary at the time, the original 65mm negative was eventually conformed to the shorter version as well, as were the 65mm separation masters and the 35mm internegatives. The trims were discarded and most of the circulating 70mm prints were altered as well.

In essence, once the short version of The Alamo was locked down, the studio made it very, very difficult to reprint or reassemble the 192-minute original cut—not out of malice, per se, but a failure of imagination. If the shorter cut meant better box office, then why would anyone ever want to make another print of that gargantuan road show version? This thinking wasn’t exclusive to United Artists—similar calculations prevailed for A Star is Born, Lawrence of Arabia, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and any number of other classics that simply proved too cumbersome for studio tastes in their original version.

Alamo LDIn the case of The Alamo, the road show version was presumed lost for three decades. In 1991, a 70mm print of the road show cut was discovered at a film warehouse in Toronto. This print served as the basis for a video transfer that was released on a letterboxed laserdisc in 1993, but otherwise the original version vanished again. The 70mm print was not used to produce new photochemical protection material or a new print. The road show version was likewise missing from the new ancillary marketplace—not available on DVD, Blu-ray, or streaming platforms.

Over the last two decades, nothing has improved—for either the road show version or the general release version. Most all of the relevant Alamo elements have deteriorated: the 65mm original negative, conformed to the short version, cannot be printed. The 65mm separation masters were improperly manufactured back in 1960 and have never been a viable source. The sole 70mm print of the road show version is now almost entirely faded, and will soon be beyond salvage due to vinegar syndrome. The 35mm internegative can still be used, but this source lacks much of the original footage, as well as the inherent resolution of the original large-format elements.

Given the limitations of the surviving film elements, it’s hardly surprising that a comprehensive restoration project has failed to materialize. Even the most lavishly-funded restoration would still yield mediocre results, leaving fans complaining and donors scratching their heads. And yet the longer we wait, the worse the options become: with each year, the film elements deteriorate and a rescue job becomes less and less viable.

The problem is that The Alamo is owned by MGM, the studio that bought out the United Artists library. As recently as ten years ago, MGM had a comprehensive asset management program in place, with robust photochemical preservation work and new 35mm prints produced at a regular clip under John Kirk. Unfortunately, the last decade has been a rocky one for MGM, with the studio facing bankruptcy, ownership changes, and mass layoffs. (It was heartbreaking trying to book repertory prints from MGM throughout most of 2011; whenever we called the studio, we would be informed that our previous contact had been laid off the week before. Eventually, MGM licensed its theatrical and non-theatrical rights to Park Circus Films, which has been doing a very admirable job of keeping this vast library as accessible as possible, in 35mm and DCP.)

It’s not incomprehensible that such a complicated and expensive undertaking as the restoration of The Alamo would fall through the cracks in this kind of environment. The problem is the shifting explanation for inaction.

For the last five years, freelance restorationist Robert Harris (responsible for much-touted, and occasionally controversial, revamped versions of Vertigo, The Godfather, Spartacus, Rear Window, My Fair Lady, and others) has been trying to persuade MGM to properly restore The Alamo. In 2009, Harris wrote a column on the state of The Alamo for The Digital Bits, reported MGM’s support for the restoration project, and solicited donations to fully fund the endeavor.

MGM LogoNothing much happened after that, though periodic Alamo pronouncements from Harris on the Home Theater Forum were not cause for optimism. The case exploded again at the end of May when The Digital Bits reported that, per Harris, MGM was now unwilling to support the restoration, but also refusing to accept funding from other sources, such as foundation grants and Kickstarter campaigns. Soon MGM was bombarded with tweets and Facebook messages, which prompted the studio to issue a boilerplate statement that The Alamo, contra Harris,is not in danger of being lost.” MGM’s Technical Services staff “proactively and routinely monitor and assess the condition of the various elements of all of MGM’s films and take steps as needed to protect and preserve them.”

What accounts for the discrepancy? A simple misunderstanding? Conflicting definitions of preservation? Familiar Yankee treachery and deception?

The Alamo now represents an exceptional situation in all respects. Public pressure is quite rare in preservation circles, where most decisions are made behind closed doors. It’s the last resort in seemingly intractable situations—whether (successfully) shaming Kodak into developing a low-fade color print stock or (fruitlessly) pushing George Lucas to restore the theatrical versions of the original Star Wars trilogy. #SavetheAlamo is unique insofar as the studio claims that the restoration work is unnecessary and redundant in the first place. (At least Lucas claimed that the original version of Star Wars was irretrievably lost and he wanted it that way, thank you very much.) It’s also notable that most of the information, if not the agitation, is coming from Harris—a contractor who has essentially appealed a rejected project bid to the court of public opinion. Suffice it to say, full-time preservationists working at, say, the Academy Film Archive or the Museum of Modern Art don’t have this option when a beloved project goes south.

The knottier issue arises from what we mean when we say that a film is “not in danger of being lost.” So long as MGM has some printable 35mm element for The Alamo, this is technically true. Do they have an obligation to preserve the best version of The Alamo, rather than a version of The Alamo? Must every variant version be preserved as well? Where does it end, especially in today’s age of Director’s Cuts, Ultimate Cuts, and Extended Editions?

Moroder MetropolisThis is scarcely an academic question. For many years, scholar William K. Everson lamented that although Herbert Brenon’s A Kiss for Cinderella had been pre- served, a reputable archive sat idle while a beautifully tinted version rotted in their collection.The other surviving copies failed to convey the full quality of the original. So was A Kiss for Cinderella lost, preserved, or something in between?

Subpar restorations sometimes represent an indifferent end game, other times a necessary stop gap. Consider the case of Metropolis, where there’s a direct lineage connecting Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 MTV-inflected revamp to the 2002 reconstruction which substituted descriptive title cards for missing footage to the 2010 restoration which incorporated roughly half an hour of footage from a 16mm negative found in Argentina. Some show of faith by MGM on The Alamo—basic preservation work now that could make a more comprehensive overhaul possible later—would obviously help matters immensely.

Can MGM simply not afford to do the necessary work? Although they’ve had great difficulties over the past decade, their intellectual property portfolio has effectively resurrected the company. To wit, MGM’s immensely profitable stake in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Skyfall allowed them to contemplate a post-bankruptcy IPO last year, with analysts predicting an opening price of $70 a share. If any studio understands the bottom-line importance of catalog assets, it’s MGM.

Surely MGM can reap some income from The Alamo: selling DVD and Blu-ray editions, licensing it as part of cable television package, leasing streaming and VOD rights, booking theatrical screenings. Stubbornly, though, we must pose a modified version of our earlier question: do they need the best version to see a return on investment or can they get by simply licensing a version of The Alamo? Will Amazon Instant Video reject MGM’s digital master because it’s not the road show edition, or because it’s not derived from a 4K or 8K scan? (Indeed, the unrestored, general release version is available for streaming on Amazon right now for a $2.99 rental or a $9.99 purchase.) Can the market even reward MGM for producing an improved version of The Alamo when we’re moving away from physical media sales (which provided a crude vote-your-wallet barometer on individual titles) to a paradigm based on packaging hundreds or thousands of titles together for streaming agreements?

There’s also another long-term threat to catalog salability—and by extension, studio-sponsored preservation and restoration—aimed directly at MGM right now. Soon enough, its implications will be felt throughout the industry. It’s Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., the Supreme Court decision handed down last month.

Stated simply, Petrella removes a major legal tactic from the studio roster when it comes to defending itself against copyright infringement claims. Contrary to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, the Supreme Court found that, the doctrine of laches—or unreasonable delay, prejudicial to the defendant—is not sufficient in itself to dismiss copyright suits.

Raging Bull PosterThe background of the case is fairly convoluted. The late writer Frank Petrella (aka Peter Savage, aka Peter Petrillo, aka porno auteur Armand Peters) collaborated with the middle-weight boxer Jake LaMotta on several works based upon the latter’s life. Their collaborations included a 1963 screenplay, an autobiography published in 1970, and another screenplay from 1973. All were registered for copyright, with Petrella as the sole claimant for the 1963 screenplay. In 1978, Petrella and LaMotta assigned rights to all three iterations to Chartoff-Winkler Productions, which was then in the midst of producing the movie that became Raging Bull, distributed in 1980 by United Artists. When UA acquired the rights to the Raging Bull source material, the contract term was unambiguous: “exclusiv[e] and forever, including all periods of copyright and renewals and extensions thereof.”

Through a quirk of copyright law, forever didn’t last very long. As Justice Ginsburg summarized in the Court’s majority opinion:

Frank Petrella died in 1981, during the initial terms of the copyrights in the screenplays and book. As this Court’s decision in Stewart confirmed, Frank Petrella’s renewal rights reverted to his heirs, who could renew the copyrights unburdened by any assignment previously made by the author . . . .

Learning of this Court’s decision in Stewart, [Petrella’s daughter, Paula] Petrella engaged an attorney who, in 1991, renewed the copyright in the 1963 screenplay. Because the copyrights in the 1973 screenplay and the 1970 book were not timely renewed, the infringement claims in this case rest exclusively on the screenplay registered in 1963. Petrella is now sole owner of the copyright in that work.

Petrella’s attorney alerted MGM, subsequent owner of UA and Raging Bull, to his client’s claim to the screenplay in 1998. MGM variously ignored or denied the claim. Petrella finally filed suit in 2009—29 years after the release of the film, 18 years after the renewal of the screenplay, and 11 years after the initial complaint. MGM’s argument—that Petrella simply waited too long to file suit, depriving the defendant of access to key documents, witnesses, and other evidence—was found insufficient.

Anyone familiar with Raging Bull will find this turn of events odd, as the gestation of the project is nearly as famous as the movie itself. The idea began with Robert De Niro, who read LaMotta’s 1970 autobiography during a film shoot; he found the writing weak but the subject compelling. De Niro repeatedly pushed Martin Scorsese to make a film out of the book, a request to which he finally acquiesced after several years. Scorsese associate Mardik Martin was commissioned to write the screenplay. UA rejected Martin’s script, which led Scorsese to hire Paul Schrader to undertake a rewrite. Schrader’s draft added several important incidents and characters, but still wasn’t entirely satisfactory. Ultimately, Scorsese and De Niro made another pass at the screenplay themselves, holing up for two and a half weeks and coming away with something that more or less resembles Raging Bull.

The film itself credits Martin and Schrader (but not Scorsese or De Niro) for the screenplay. The official credits also cite LaMotta’s 1970 book, but not Petrella’s 1963 screenplay. Whether Martin, Scorsese, or anybody else even consulted this early draft or simply started from scratch is unclear. It would hardly be uncommon for a studio to acquire rights to all iterations of a story to cover their bases and protect against future claims of infringement.

Obviously, the opposite happened in this case: a screenplay with a potentially tenuous connection to a film produced 17 years later is now the basis of an infringement suit, even though the studio thought they owned the script in perpetuity.

De Niro_RB

Petrella may or may not wind up victorious in her claim. The Supreme Court did not reach the merits of this particular lawsuit, instead remanding the case to the Ninth Circuit with instructions to ignore MGM’s unreasonable delay argument. Even if Petrella’s claim of infringement is ultimately judged frivolous, the damage has already been done: studios cannot plead unreasonable delay when a litigant brings a decades-old copyright infringement claim to court. How many will now come out of the woodwork to claim a piece of the popular chestnuts?

Over at Forbes, Brad Newberg does a good job of assessing the impact of this new precedent:

Because any company that uses a work for many years might now be sued decades after the first use, businesses need to have good document retention systems and keep files related to each creative work or artist.  They should paper all aspects of creation and production, including taking notes, making records of meetings, and retaining drafts showing the creative process . . . . [I]f any claims or threats are received over time, they should be kept in the work’s file even if the claimant takes no action.  That way, the business people twenty years later can undertake a risk/reward analysis before they put resources into marketing a re-release or anniversary edition of a work.

This is a victory for artist’s rights, but a potentially catastrophic development for the preservation field. As The Alamo demonstrates, it’s already difficult enough to persuade a corporation to invest in the preservation of its own asset library. If bringing out a restored version of a film opens the door to litigation, very, very few titles would merit the risk. Would streaming deals be anywhere near as lucrative if every title could come under a cloud of legal wrangling at any time without warning?

Films, especially Hollywood films, are ultimately business propositions—speculative ventures and commercial products that also happen to carry considerable artistic, cultural, and historical weight. If a corporation created a film, perhaps it’s also the corporation’s right to let it disappear. Yet such an unsentimental fate sounds disturbing and disappointing to us—if a film is capable of transcending its commercial origins through craft and insight, shouldn’t its long-term survival likewise transcend the whims of the shareholders? The market has failed, but we cannot simply leave it at that. Robust public funding for non-profit archives and exhibitors becomes essential—not only to fill in the cracks, but to point towards a different paradigm.

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Sucking in the Seventies: Re-Examining the Wondrous, Incoherent Decade

ERRBI’m pretty sure the first movie book I read cover-to-cover was Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a high-calorie, sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ gross participation page-turner that maps the ascent and deflation of the “New Hollywood” filmmakers from 1967 to 1980. For a high schooler, it was a simple story with an irresistible through line and a cast of unsavory, irascible geniuses. Even without seeing all the films described in the book, this gossipy chronicle of long-haired movie brats sold a seductive premise: a vanished kingdom of personal, American auteurist cinema, wiped off the beach by Jaws and its blockbusting successors.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, published in 1998 shortly after the release of Boogie Nights, spawned a ’70s revival that has now calcified into a peculiar critical consensus. The best-seller inspired two talking-head documentaries (A Decade Under the Influence and another named for and adapted from the Biskind book) and endless appreciations of films that were hardly underappreciated in the first place: The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, Apocalypse Now.

Nor can we forget the recent films that consciously channeled the “New Hollywood Renaissance,” taking the procedural aloofness of All the President’s Men as a retro Rosetta Stone: Argo, The Informant!, Michael ClaytonZodiac, American Hustle, and host of less memorable pictures. Grain equals grit.

By now, the ’70s are accepted so reflexively as “Hollywood’s Last Golden Age” that there’s little point in quibbling. Still, it’s difficult to name another era in Hollywood filmmaking impervious to the critic’s naturally revisionist impulse. The Best Picture Oscar winners of the ’30s or the ’80s are roundly ridiculed, but the ’70s class (Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall) remains lionized.

Indeed, the beloved ’70s canon is stubbornly small. The strained solidarity of Five Easy Pieces stands as a Sundance template and a wellspring of perpetually fashionable misogyny. Chinatown is still cited as a model of screenplay construction and elegant cynicism. The directors who garnered adulatory press coverage and stirring reviews in the ’70s—Altman, Scorsese, Coppola—are still regarded as the central figures of the era.

When re-examining the ’70s, it limits our understanding substantially to focus on individual filmmakers—and perhaps even individual films. The real story tumbles out only when viewed in aggregate. The free-for-all movie marketplace of the ’70s—when evangelical dramas rubbed shoulders with skin flicks and colossal old Hollywood follies like Lost Horizon competed with revolutionary political tracts—encompassed much, much more than a couple of film school dreamers breaking into big-boy features.

Mother and ?What makes the decade interesting is this very heterogeneity, the ever-shifting contours and limits of the commercial film landscape. The crumbling urban movie palaces of the ’70s played host to some frankly weird and staggering stuff—movies that never would have graduated from the back room of the elk’s lodge in the ’50s and ’60s and would be relegated to the direct-to-video catacombs in the ’80s and ’90s.

Scanning the movie ads that regularly confronted people in their morning newspapers in the ’70s provides an excellent cross-section of the shifting cinema, and offers incidental insights into the profound dislocations experienced by Nixon’s Silent Majority. Our friend Mike Quintero sent over an arresting Chicago Tribune clipping when we showed Thieves Like Us last October. In the May 25, 1974 edition of the Trib, Thieves Like Us was advertised alongside Foxy Brown, The Conversation, and Blazing Saddles (“from the people who gave you ‘The Jazz Singer’”).  Local drive-ins pitched a forgotten G-rated live-action double feature from Walt Disney Productions—Snowball Express and The World’s Greatest Athlete.

Meanwhile, the 3 Penny Cinema promised a “New Adult Show Every Friday”. (This week’s bill: Carnal Cure, Lips, and Witchcraft.) The Rush Theatre offered a rival porno triple feature: Playboy Takes a Wife, Housewife on the Loose, and Group Therapy. The Aardvark peddled the X-rated Revolving Youth and Sweet Young Age. The aptly-named Termite promoted Magic Ring and Teacher’s Dream, both X. Le Image, the ‘Psychedelic Cinema’ at 750 N. Clark, boasted a special “A5 Unit All-Adult Program” that ran from noon to midnight. The Playboy Theatre announced that its program had been “held over due to overwhelming response”: Jean Eustache’s New Wave classic The Mother and the Whore (or, as rendered opportunistically by the Playboy, The Mother and the ?, with instructions to phone the theater for more details).

C&SB_PosterForget porno chic.  To judge by Page N16 of Chicago’s family newspaper, the smut now actually outnumbered the real movies. The traditional Hollywood movie, once the nation’s preeminent mainstream entertainment vehicle, had been supplanted almost overnight by Allergies Drive Her Wild. (Was that even a movie?)

It wasn’t only the pornographers making aboveground headway. Our own Rebecca Hall has written suggestively of The Cross and the Switchblade—a Christian evangelizing film self-branded as “Responsible Entertainment” and released in IB Technicolor:

Like the hippies in the Jesus Movement, The Cross and the Switchblade was almost mainstream. The story was adapted from a best-selling autobiographical novel, and the film starred washed-up chart-topper Pat Boone in the role of pastor David Wilkerson, freelance evangelist and a young, then-unknown, Erik Estrada as one of the troubled youth. Slightly later evangelical films of the early 70s like If Footmen Tire, What Will Horses Do? (1971, Ron Ormond) or A Thief in the Night (1972, Donald Thompson) were circulated on 16mm and shown in church basements; Cross was released in conventional theaters in 35mm (by a short-lived film distribution division of the American Baptist Convention) and was advertised in local papers alongside Five Easy Pieces and various skin flicks.

Co-existence, a cultural aspiration that met so much opposition in the broader American landscape, thrived at the movies.

Distributor’s line-ups presumed a pluralistic audience. Big studios got behind European art cinema and promoted it as if it was homegrown product: Paramount released Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Warner Bros. put out Jan Troell’s The Emigrants and The New Land in dual-inventory subtitled and dubbed versions. Others bankrolled All-American excursions by established Euro brands—M-G-M sent Michelangelo Antonioni to Zabriskie Point and Universal backed Milos Forman’s Taking Off as part of a broader low-budget “youth slate” that also included Two-Lane Blacktop, The Hired Hand, and The Last Movie. (The ploy almost worked. Gene Siskel cited Taking Off, along with Alice’s Restaurant, as “the best youth films of the last-dozen years.” Forman’s American debut also received a hilariously tentative endorsement from PTA Magazine: “Except for a drunken parental strip episode, the film would be worth viewing by all ages.”)

New Line '73Independent outfits went even further. It’s staggering to realize that one long-defunct company, Cinema 5 Distributing, released films by established masters like Ingmar Bergman (Scenes from a Marriage) and Satyajit Ray (Distant Thunder), politically-charged entertainment (Z) and documentaries (Marjoe, The Sorrow and the Pity), as well as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, insect overlord exposé The Hellstrom Chronicle, and a comedy called I Could Never Have Sex with Any Man Who Has So Little Regard for My Husband.

The scene wasn’t limited to traditional movie theaters, either. With some 5,000 active film societies in the US, largely on college campuses, distributors found outlets for very difficult material. Consider another favorite artifact—the first-ever catalog issued by upstart distributor New Line Cinema in 1973. Long before the company put itself on the map with low-budget teenage attractions like A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Line offered a precociously eclectic line-up for campus film societies, explicitly attuned to the ever-expanding definition of cinema:

Film in the 70’s offers an unprecedented variety of styles and influences which should be an important part of any campus entertainment and cultural program . . . .

As film programmers, you have the opportunity to go beyond standard film exhibition routine. Hollywood and traditional classics are no doubt an important part of a program, but film today goes further than these tried-and-true narrow limits. A campus film program should be more than just another movie theatre in your community. Many exciting film events are contained in this catalog and college is the only time when students will have the opportunity to be exposed to the important variety of independent film programming.

Taking Off_PosterThe catalog itself offered, among other things: art house films by Kenji Mizoguchi (The Crucified Lovers and Tales of the Taira Clan), Jean-Luc Godard (Sympathy for the Devil), Robert Bresson (Mouchette and Au Hasard Balthazar), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Medea) Norman Mailer (Maidstone), and Werner Herzog (Fata Morgana); reissues of campy exploitation films like Reefer Madness and The Cocaine Fiends; John Waters’s Pink Flamingos; concert docs about musicians as varied as Ravi Shankar, The Last Poets, and Earl Scruggs; Eyes of Hell, advertised as “the only 3-D film available in 16m/m”; the 1926 Japanese avant-garde silent film A Page of Madness; programs culled from the New York Festival of Women’s Films and the First Annual N.Y. Erotic Film Festival (“film is a four-letter word”); Stroke!, “a clinically accurate depiction of adolescent female masturbation,” per the Kinsey Institute; Together, “the first sexually-oriented film to play shopping-center and general release theatres”; Luminous Procuress, with the Cockettes; and Don’t Bank on Amerika, a documentary that depicted “the growth of a small surfer-college town into a gutsy revolutionary community in six short months.”

Critics rarely talk about movies as a business, leaving that beat to box-office watchers and industry-insider journalists. That’s a mistake, because a distributor’s slate and a theater’s booking policy profoundly affect not only what audiences see, but what constitutes a movie in the first place. This was the central question of ’70s cinema—and the fact that the ultimate answer was sci-fi blockbusters and slasher movies in no way diminishes the exhausting variety of mad wares that auditioned for the part. Indeed, with industry promoters promising that we’ll soon see many more satellite-fed sporting events and concerts at the local multiplex, we would do well to study the last great upheaval, the last time the notion of “the movies” was up for grabs.

The Northwest Chicago Film Society will be screening Taking Off at the Patio Theater on April 2 at 7:30 in a 35mm print from Universal.

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Crimes of Opportunity: Ben Hecht, Anti-Auteur

Crime Without Passion_FuryWe’re all auteurists now. The notion that the director is primary author of a film, once a fringe idea debated in little magazines and grindhouse theater lobbies, is now the implicit premise of movie production, criticism, and advertising. When 3 Days to Kill is promoted as “A McG Film” and Pompeii is, contractually speaking, “A Film by Paul W. S. Anderson,” we must recognize that the debate is well settled.

In our era of automatic auteurs, the contentious critical arguments of generations past can seem downright quaint, if not fitfully obscure. The once-controversial figure of the writer-director is a case in point.

In the earliest years of cinema, production roles were rarely delineated: actors and directors could improvise a scenario on standing sets, or a cameraman might call the shots. A quintessentially industrial art thrived on a pre-industrial division of labor. The growth of the studio system in the late 1910s and 1920s gradually forced filmmakers into more rigidly defined roles. The transformation culminated with the coming of sound, which introduced the idea of the modern screenwriter—not a semi-literate scenario scribbler or a witty intertitle aphorist, but someone who resembled a professional Broadway playwright.

The moguls aspired to employ sharp, college-educated playwrights, but the working conditions they offered were frequently demeaning and atrocious: no matter how fine a script was, the studio machinery would insist upon re-writes. The script would be passed from one employee to another as a matter of habit.  One cannot overstate how thoughtlessly this imperative unfolded in practice. The process that birthed Midnight (1939) may be apocryphal, but it remains illustrative: unsatisfied with Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s draft, Paramount threw the script into the rewrite pool and programmatically assigned the task to another team—Wilder and Brackett, as it turned out, who submitted their uncorrected ‘revision,’ which was judged a tremendous improvement.

Under such circumstances, one can understand the writer’s impulse to direct his own script, if only to protect his material from further interference. There were frustrated attempts at writing-directing careers in the early ’30s, like the very talented Rowland Brown, but the breakthrough came with Preston Sturges’s 1940 sleeper hit The Great McGinty. Sturges famously sold the screenplay (an eventual Academy Award winner) to Paramount for a dollar with the proviso that he direct it himself, which opened the floodgates for established scripters like John Huston and Billy Wilder, and later Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Samuel Fuller. In studiospeak, members of this rarefied talent class were known as hyphenates—a mark of distinction, or perhaps a throwback to nativist complaints about “hyphenated Americans.”

In the auteurist upheaval of the 1960s, films were elevated to tributaries of personal sensibility—the expression of a director’s worldview. Yet the writer-director often received bafflingly short shrift in this landscape. If the director was already the de facto author of a film, shouldn’t a writer-director be a giant among men? Counterintuitively, Andrew Sarris argued that the hyphenates were developmentally debilitated:

Because so much of the American cinema is commissioned, a director is forced to express his personality through the visual treatment of material rather than through the literary content of the material. A Cukor, who works with all sorts of projects, has a more developed abstract style than a Bergman, who is free to develop his own scripts. Not that Bergman lacks personality, but his work has declined with the depletion of his ideas largely because his technique never equaled his sensibility. Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Billy Wilder are other examples of writer-directors without adequate technical mastery. By contrast, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger have moved up the scale because their miscellaneous projects reveal a stylistic consistency.

Talking PicturesIt’s all well and good to argue over the comparative craft of a Mankiewicz or a Wilder, but they’re pikers compared to the supreme writer-director of them all, the one who most flagrantly sought to disrupt the studio system that enriched him: Ben Hecht. It’s safe to say that Hecht didn’t give a damn about abstract style or technical mastery. Indeed, he didn’t give a damn about being a director at all. He is the anti-auteur.

Hecht was, of course, the quintessential Chicago newspaperman—a hard-drinking cynic with an endless supply of jagged bon mots. Hecht’s Broadway hits The Front Page and Twentieth Century propelled him to the front ranks of Hollywood’s writer-for-hire racket. (His collaborator on both plays, Charles MacArthur, could have claimed equal stature, had he cared to play the guileless game.)

We scoff today when we learn that the author of Chinatown cashed a paycheck for a rewrite of Armageddon, or the team responsible for Sideways polished up I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, but Hecht mortgaged his talent before these scribes could walk, contributing to forgettable backstage musicals, religious pabulum, sci-fi pictures, and sword and sandal adventures. Richard Corliss’s assessment from his 1974 book Talking Pictures still holds:

Ben Hecht was the Hollywood screenwriter … Indeed, it can be said without too much exaggeration that Hecht personifies Hollywood itself: a jumble of talent, cynical and overpaid; most successful when he was least ambitious; often failing when he mistook sentimentality for seriousness, racy, superficial, vital, and American.

This before acknowledging that a heavily-researched filmography “credits Hecht with just about every entertaining movie in the Hollywood sound era.” Among Hecht’s official credits: Underworld, The Great Gabbo, Scarface, Hallelujah I’m a Bum, Design for Living, Barbary Coast, Nothing Sacred, The Goldwyn Follies, Wuthering Heights, Spellbound, Notorious, Kiss of Death, Whirlpool, Monkey Business, and Ulysses. Uncredited: Back Street, Queen Christina, The Hurricane, Gone with the Wind, The Shop Around the Corner, Roxie Hart, Gilda, Rope, The Thing from Another World, Roman Holiday, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, and, at age 74, Casino Royale.

Hecht was the consummate fixer, a professional who could spend a week or two on a problematic script and turn it into a classic. His range of credits suggests no personal engagement, no integrity worth preserving. He may have wanted to protect his scripts, as a matter of professional credibility, but he had no passion, no drive to create the Great American Movie. In fact, Hecht claimed to have seen barely a dozen movies altogether by 1934.

CWP _ Rains_BourneWhy, then, did Hecht turn to directing?

Mostly, it was a crime of opportunity. Electric Research Products, Inc. (ERPI), a subsidiary of Western Electric, had a New York studio at its disposal. Hollywood had effectively abandoned East Coast production a few years before and few independent producers had the capital to start new projects in the depths of the Depression. ERPI set up a revolving line of credit (eventually, $800,000 worth) to encourage cash-strapped producers to use its facilities. The Eastern Service Studios Inc. (ESSI) in Astoria was soon buzzing with independent productions, including The Emperor Jones and Moonlight and Pretzels.

Still, ERPI wanted something bigger and offered a million dollars to Paramount to underwrite major New York productions. Paramount’s head of production, George Schaefer, extended the offer to Hecht and MacArthur, who would be given carte blanche to make whatever they wanted. They could demonstrate not so much that they could be good directors but that directors themselves were largely superfluous.

At first, Hecht and MacArthur were defiantly conceited. “Neither Charlie nor I had ever spent an hour on a movie set,” Hecht later wrote. “We knew nothing of casts, budgets, schedules, booms, gobos, unions, scenery, cutting, lighting.” Still, they couldn’t muck it up any worse than any of the other hacks.

Soon enough, reality set in. They panicked. They called Howard Hawks and pleaded, “For God’s sake, will you come back here for a week and help us. We don’t know a god damn thing about it.” Hawks was, of course, a busy professional whose stock was rising rapidly. Why should he drop everything to prop up these smartasses?

Hecht and MacArthur found a more accommodating collaborator in Lee Garmes, the great cameraman who had shot Scarface, City Streets, Morocco, and Shanghai Express, the latter a recent Academy Award winner for Best Cinematography. Garmes recalled the strange offer two decades later in an interview with George Pratt:

One day my agent called me in to the office. It was Myron Selznick.
He said, “Lee, how would you like to go to New York and be associated with Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur?”
I said, “Who the hell are they?”
And he says, “Well, they’re two of the famous movie writers … They’ve set up shop in New York to make some pictures and they have asked for a cameraman to join them that has directorial aspirations and knows a little bit about directorial things. They don’t believe in directors. They want to write and produce these pictures and they don’t want to have the typical Hollywood director because somehow or other they don’t feel that the stories they’ve written have always come off on the screen the way they should come off.”

They also offered to double his present salary as a Fox cameraman. He accepted.

CWP - Ad 2_ThumbnailGarmes was the right man for the job, and probably one of the only cameramen in Hollywood who would have embraced Hecht and MacArthur’s unconventional working methods:

My job with Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur was sort of co-director and co-producer. I helped out on the sets and also I supervised all the film editing on all the pictures . . . . After we got well-organized in the picture, the boys used to take turns in coming to the studio to direct. Ben Hecht would come in one morning and direct that day and Charlie would come in the next day. They’d alternate.

Sometimes they’d come in and they’d start in the background of the set playing backgammon. When I’d say, “Roll ‘em!”—why, as soon as the camera rolled over and we got the number on the camera, we said, “Action!” and they’d stop playing backgammon. If one of the actors made a mistake or blew up a line or something—why, they wouldn’t say, “Cut!” and I wouldn’t say, “Cut!” They would just start rolling the dice for the backgammon game and we knew then that we had to start the scene over again. This happened all the time. They were really a couple of screwballs, but I loved working with them, every minute of it.

The first production turned out between backgammon games was Crime Without Passion. That the film has any fluidity and discipline at all is likely due to Garmes—there are some marvelous, dense tracking shots here hardly dictated by the script. The opening Slavko Vorkapich montage is also a stunner, sketching out a symphony of brooding stories in jumpy shorthand. The script itself doesn’t so much transcend cliché as dispense it in an extremely articulate, cosmopolitan form—a penny dreadful for the aesthetes. In keeping with the Hecht philosophy, it doesn’t conquer new frontiers in art but shows up all other practitioners as untalented charlatans. (This is, after all, the screenwriter who came out to Hollywood on the basis of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s telegram—“Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.”)

Crime Without Passion predictably received an enormous amount of curious press coverage and unpredictably became a box-office hit.  The Hecht-MacArthur-Garmes juggernaut continued with The Scoundrel but lost steam with Once in a Blue Moon, which was barely released. Hecht and MacArthur substituted Leon Shamroy for Garmes on their final Astoria production, Soak the Rich, and the great experiment ended ignominiously.

Still, for someone who allegedly found no glory in directing, Hecht returned to it three more times, with Garmes but without MacArthur. Their later projects did not find the same favorable terms as the Paramount-ERPI films and they trickled out over the course of a dozen years from three different studios: Angels Over Broadway from Columbia in 1940, Specter of the Rose courtesy of Republic in 1946, and Actors and Sin through United Artists in 1952.

Specter“All of the Hecht-Garmes collaborations are moody and oppressive,” observes Corliss, “looking as if they were lit with a couple of flashlight batteries.” Angels Over Broadway has a bit more technical polish than that, but the description aptly applies to Specter of the Rose, one of the most unheralded and unaccountable movies ever made. Laid down in the languidly bitter world of ballet, Specter somewhat anticipates All About Eve and improbably surpasses the famous bitchiness of that picture. Hecht’s cast is undistinguished—Judith Anderson, Michael Chekhov, Ivan Kirov, Viola Essen—and they frankly lack the chops to keep up with his dialogue. No one could—the screenplay for Specter of the Rose hovers above the human plane, destined to be sullied by mere mortals. Its wit cannot be extricated from its arrogance. It’s pure l’esprit de l’escalier, nasty rejoinders so sophisticated and precise that they can only be constructed in hindsight—except in this movie, where they flow with impunity at an exhausting, real-time clip.

Understandably, Specter of the Rose was a flop with audiences. Republic tried re-issuing it in the wake of The Red Shoes and even changed the film’s copyright notice to disguise it as new product, seemingly to no avail. Ultimately, the only thing that could have salvaged Specter of the Rose was a good, disciplined director—which was exactly the point. One can readily understand why the first generation of auteurists overlooked Hecht—he calls into question not only whether a director can make a personal statement, but whether he should. As is, Hecht and Garmes’s folly stands as Cinema Ground Zero, a profane masterpiece that has all the ingredients of an actual movie, but still can’t pass as one. Perhaps, in the end, Hecht was an auteur in spite of himself.

The Northwest Chicago Film Society will be screening
Crime Without Passion in a beautiful 35mm print at the Patio Theater on March 12. Print courtesy of Universal Studios. Please see our current calendar for further information.

Corliss, Richard. Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, 1927-1973. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1974.
Hecht, Ben. A Child of the Century. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954.
Koszarski, Richard. Hollywood on the Hudson. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Film Culture 27, Winter 1962/63.

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Punch Cards, Veronica Mars, and the Digital No-Wave

votomaticLet Us Compare Mythologies
You’ve probably heard by now that the ongoing digital cinema conversion has fundamentally transformed the way movies are produced, distributed, and exhibited. Taken on their own, petitions and protests that aim to save 35mm film can look nostalgic, naïve, or simply Luddite. With 92% of American screens already film-free, this looks like a settled issue, with no outstanding questions.

The scene looks different at a farther remove. Cinema is hardly the only industry in the midst of a digital transition, after all, and comparative analysis promises fresh insight.

Let’s talk about the parallel upheaval in voting technology for a moment. In the wake of the Florida’s extraordinarily close vote totals in the 2000 presidential election, America focused anew on problems at the polling place. Poor ballot design, antiquated punch cards, obsolete lever machines—all came under post-mortem scrutiny. The technology was an incongruous, even dangerous, anachronism for the dot com economy. “In the age of the microchip,” CBS News opined, “the leadership of the free world is being decided by boxes of paper ballots with hanging and half-punched “chads,” leaving it to harried election officials to decide who meant to vote for whom.” In California, the ACLU cited the scattered usage of the much-maligned Votomatic machine as an impediment to equal protection guarantees and sued to delay a state-wide election until all the machines could be replaced.

On a 2001 episode of the PBS Newshour, a professor from George Washington University assured viewers that the voting technology problem could be easily licked. The plan itself was simple, provided that Congress found the will and the money to implement it:

NORTON GARFINKLE: Well, in our calculations, we found that the total cost of installing the new equipment throughout the country would be $1.2 billion. That’s less than 1 tenth of 1 percent of one year’s annual budget, federal budget of $2 trillion. Now, the easiest way to do this, the most straightforward way to do this, the thing that could accomplish the task within the next three months is if the Congress simply allocated a $600 million matching grant program to enable the states then to match the amount of money and then acquire the new equipment that’s needed. It really surprised us that the problem is so easily manageable. This is one of those problems that essentially is now highly visible but small enough to solve.

In a moment of bipartisan initiative that looks improbable today, Congress subsequently passed the Help America Vote Act, which promised, among other things, to subsidize the overhaul of outdated voting machines across the country. There were scattered anxieties about the transition, centering mostly on the security of the electronic voting systems and the scruples of equipment manufacturers like Diebold.

How did it all turn out, over a decade later?

Cinephiles and civilians alike can be forgiven for ignoring January’s release [PDF] of The American Voting Experience: Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. As government reports go, it’s actually a pretty straightforward and breezy read. One section, in particular, aroused our interest because it reveals the limits of Garfinkle’s optimism:

What Could Go WrongPerhaps the most dire warning the Commission heard in its investigation of the topics in the Executive Order concerned the impending crisis in voting technology. Well-known to election administrators, if not the public at large, this impending crisis arises from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago, the lack of any voting machines on the market that meet the current needs of election administrators, a standard-setting process that has broken down, and a certification process for new machines that is costly and time-consuming. In short, jurisdictions do not have the money to purchase new machines, and legal and market constraints prevent the development of machines they would want even if they had the funds.

When most people think of the crisis in voting technology, they think it passed with the 2000 election . . . . The voting technology crisis the country will soon experience has its roots in the 2000 election, but the nature of the problem is quite different than a decade ago. A large share of the voting machines currently in operation were purchased with federal funds appropriated in 2003 as part of HAVA’s provisions assisting in the transition away from punch card ballots and mechanical lever machines toward Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) and optical scan machines. Those machines are now reaching the end of their natural life cycle, and no comparable federal funds are in the pipeline to replace them.

The cinema parallel isn’t exact, but it’s damn close.

Also: damn edifying and damn frightening.

Throughout much of the last decade, studios were pressuring movie theaters to convert from 35mm projection to digital exhibition. Such a conversion—which could run between $50,000 to $100,000 per screen—required a large amount of capital that theaters simply didn’t have or wouldn’t invest in the new technology. This years-long impasse was finally broken by the Virtual Print Fee incentive—basically, an indirect cash transfer program where huge sums of conversion money flowed from the studios to the theaters via a third-party intermediate known as an integrator. Backed by the studios, the integrator would underwrite digital equipment purchase and installation for the exhibitors, leaving the theater owners with substantial debt. Every time the theater projected a movie via the new Digital Cinema Package format, the studio would pay a ‘virtual print fee’ to the integrator and slowly chip away at the exhibitor’s loan principal. The theater would be on the books and on the hook, but most of this obligation would eventually be covered by the producers—so long as the exhibitors kept showing movies and kept showing them digitally.

The Virtual Print Fee was designed as a one-time, extraordinary solution to unique problem. The studios made the calculation that the benefit of indirectly subsidizing the mass conversion of projection technology would considerably outweigh the cost. But what happens when the first wave of digital projection equipment breaks down or begins to show its age? This, too, will probably happen within a decade—probably around 2019 or 2020, when the machines installed to take full advantage of Avatar reach the end of their natural life.

Some are optimistic that the next wave of digital projector installations will boost adoption for high-end specs largely neglected in the first round: 4K resolution, rather than 2K, or laser technology instead of DLP. There’s plenty of growth potential—provided someone wants to pick up the bill. And at this moment, it’s not clear that anyone does.

What Comes After Cinema?
NT LiveFor all their inadequacies, analog voting machines and film projectors were relatively easy and cheap to maintain. True, many machines suffered from neglect, with decrepit models meted out disproportionally to poor and rural populations. It’s legitimate to ask whether anybody deserves to vote or watch a movie with decades-old equipment. That such a question could be posed in the first place, though, underlines something important: the equipment’s productive life was measured in decades, rather than years. The electronic voting machine and the digital projector are strictly short-term solutions. We made these choices, and now we have to face the consequences. It’s easy to agitate for revolution, harder to sustain it and plan its next development.

An outdated voting machine is a problem for a democracy, but it’s also a problem that will get solved sooner or later. The incentives are straightforward. Voters need some means of casting a ballot in the first place to accord legitimacy upon their representatives, so one imagines that there will be another Congressional appropriation to fix this looming crisis, if perhaps only at the eleventh hour. (Whether there will also be targeted, state-level efforts to impose voter ID laws and effectively suppress eligible voter turnout is, of course, another matter.) Voting machines may become obsolete, but voting itself cannot.

The same doesn’t necessarily hold true for cinema. Who will pay for the next overhaul and why? If the machine fails, why can’t the medium follow?

In 1999, the critic Godfrey Cheshire penned an extraordinarily prescient article about the future of digital cinema for the New York Press. Most industry watchers were predicting an imminent and essentially bloodless conversion to celebrate the new millennium, but Cheshire unpacked the implications in a way that Hollywood wasn’t necessarily ready to contemplate. Cinema as we knew it, Cheshire surmised, was rooted in the limitations of the film medium itself. Theaters screened feature-length movies because the costly, time-consuming process of striking film prints allowed for few alternatives. Movies were scripted, static, solid, classical by default. But digital opened up a whole new set of possibilities: theaters could screen live satellite feeds of concerts, sporting events, stage productions, and non-filmic entertainment previously confined to TV dissemination. Hence, the movie theater of the 21st century would build upon the paradigm of 20th century television, not 20th century cinema.

ROH CinemaWith many multiplexes and art houses these days giving over a movie screen or two to regular installments of National Theatre Live or opera from La Scala, Cheshire’s forecast looks eerily accurate. Ironically, Cheshire’s major prognostic error is imagining a fully-transformed cinema along the lines of TV, while remaining sketchy on the future of TV itself. With streaming increasingly replacing over-the-air viewing, TV has endured an even more profound upheaval then cinema over the last 15 years, but that doesn’t diminish Cheshire’s essential insight into the fundamental mutability of the cinema experience.

That mutability works both ways. Theaters might not need movies anymore. Will movies still need theaters?

Already theatrical releases have become something of a formality. The typical window between theatrical release and home video release has shrunk from nine months or more to three months or less. In some sense, the theatrical release is an extended advertisement for the ancillary iterations—DVD, Blu-ray, Ultraviolet, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, etc. The theatrical release continues, in part because it’s a guarantee of coverage that newspapers and magazines would never lavish upon a strictly video on demand (VOD) title. Laboring under the edict that every new theatrical release demands a review, one dying medium enables another by a quirk of decorum. Cultural preeminence certainly has its advantages.

But is the moviegoing habit so strong that studios will spend billions of dollars to sustain the theater business in 2020 when its equipment becomes obsolete again? Whatever the landscape looks like, the exhibitors will not be negotiating from a position of strength. (Many may still be paying off old debts for worthless equipment.) The next wave of digital cinema could turn into a no-wave.

Obsolescence on DemandVM_One-Sheet
The ascent of VOD is undeniable. Over the last few years, it’s been pioneered by upstarts and boutique labels—Magnolia, Roadside Attractions, IFC, and Radius, the VOD arm of The Weinstein Company. As a matter of principle, the big theater chains like Cinemark and Regal refused to screen titles released simultaneously to the VOD market. Then again, they likely wouldn’t play much product from these indie distributors to begin with—and the distributor’s business model doesn’t depend on opening on 2,000 or 3,000 screens either. When you don’t have to recoup a nine-figure investment, you can take that kind of risk. The VOD experimenters could go after unaffiliated theaters or small chains. So long as they could demonstrate that simultaneous VOD availability did not completely gut theatrical revenue, everyone was happy. Decent theatrical grosses for mid-profile VOD fare like Margin Call and Arbitrage partially alleviated exhibitor concerns. (Indie veteran John Sloss even dared distributors to release VOD grosses alongside traditional box office numbers, a suggestion that has been slow to gain traction.)

The major studios, which have much more invested in each release, have been comparatively shy about VOD. They could not dip a toe in the VOD waters and sustain a retaliatory boycott from the theater chains. Universal tried such an experiment in 2011, when it announced that Tower Heist would be available on VOD three weeks after its theatrical bow. Cinemark and National Amusements swiftly refused to book Tower Heist and Universal backed down.

The theaters’ threats bought more than two years of negotiated peace with the studios on the VOD question, but the balance of power is shifting. On March 14, Warner Bros. will simultaneously release Veronica Mars to theaters and VOD. The studio claims that it’s a one-off deal, dictated by the terms of the unusual Kickstarter campaign that financed the movie. Will a successful VOD roll-out really be limited to a one-off? And again, will major studio VOD releases remain taboo for the duration of the decade? If not, the number-crunchers at the studios will doubtless ask whether they really need to underwrite another round of digital projector purchases in 2020 when their exhibitor partners return, hat in hand.

The fundamental issue here—the thing that unites art and commerce, calculation and aspiration—is underlying business model for hardware manufacturers. Cinema in the 20th century grew up around a familiar industrial paradigm. Companies like Ballantyne Strong did not base their revenue projections on the expectation that clients would be replacing their equipment every five to ten years. They treated their merchandise like a sturdy investment to be serviced, not a consumer product to be upgraded. There’s no Moore’s Law for film projectors.

The conversion has shifted the paradigm and the expectations of equipment manufacturers in a dangerous direction. Should a digital projector be thought of like a film projector or more like a computer or a tablet? If the latter paradigm prevails, what happens to the marketplace when theater owners don’t wind up camping outside the Barco factory like a bunch of yuppies hoping to be the first on their block to land an iPhone 5S?

The problem extends beyond the exhibition sector. It encompasses our whole brave new moving image hippodrome. As Matthew Dessem observed in an outstanding state-of-the-field overview on The Dissolve, the new standard for data preservation—LTO tape—is no standard at all:

Since 2000, new generations of LTO technology have been released every two years or so—new tapes and new drives—and they’re only backward-compatible for two generations. So a film that was archived to tape in 2006 using then-state-of-the-art LTO-3 tapes can’t be read by the LTO-6 drives that are for sale today.

… [N]either the manufacturers of LTO tapes nor the bulk of their clients have much incentive to develop a true archival format. Tape and drive manufacturers thrive on planned obsolescence, just like the rest of the computer industry. And companies who purchase LTO tapes for backups not only don’t need the data preserved longer than the seven years required for Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, they don’t want it preserved longer, because as long as the data exists, it’s discoverable in lawsuits. It’s possible that a digital format that meets these archival requirements will someday be developed—but it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

LTO-4The problem is not just theoretical. As Jan-Christopher Horak recently noted, UCLA Film & Television Archive had to migrate its restoration of The Red Shoes from LTO-3 to LTO-5—at a cost of over $15,000. (Just imagine how much UCLA will have to pay to migrate every title, every three to four years, and suddenly the carping of the theater owners looks like small potatoes.)

There’s an inescapable conclusion here: the forces of the free market and the wisdom of the tech industry are not aligned with the long-term viability of cinema, whether it’s defined as 35mm or DCP. The preservation and growth of cinema likely needs some combination of state support, non-profit initiative, and private citizen enthusiasm—just don’t expect the result to look like any paradigm we already know.

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Beacons of Cinema: In Defense of Trailers

MPAA in 70mmNow that the film vs. digital debate is winding down, the National Association of Theater Owners has turned its attention towards more pressing matters. Last month the exhibitor’s trade group issued new guidelines for movie trailers and related promotional material, effective October 2014. It was a canny move, seizing upon public sentiment that “trailers are too damn long” and thus earning ink for NATO in publications like RedEye that would typically ignore its pronouncements. (When you share an acronym with the instantly recognized North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it’s hard to get mainstream press coverage. Then again, as an industry trade group, perhaps you don’t want the sunlight in the first place.)

The new NATO guidelines, which are completely voluntary, mandate that movie trailers run no longer than two minutes and be released no more than five months before than the movie that they’re promoting. (Trailers are presently around two and half minutes apiece.) Each distributor will qualify for two exemptions per year, though these exceptional trailers cannot be any longer than three minutes. NATO’s latest also clamps down on “direct response prompts (QR codes, text-to, sound recognition, etc.)” in trailers and endorses practices that most theaters abide by already, such as assuring that age-appropriate trailers accompany each feature so that Dallas Buyers Club isn’t pitched at the Frozen crowd.

NATO’s new marketing directives also encompass more than just trailers. Posters and standees will not be displayed more than four months prior to a film’s release. Revealing, but little remarked upon, is NATO’s decree that studio marketing personnel and on-site auditors should identify themselves to theater management and meet a minimum standard of courtesy and professionalism (!)

It’s easy to be cynical about new trailer guidelines. The big theater chains represented by NATO want their customers to have a good time at the movies, but a highly regimented and regularized good time. Theater owners typically prefer shorter shows because it allows them to hold more screenings per day and profit from greater audience turn-over. (If you require a reminder of how bottom-line-oriented the NATO operation is, check out the trade group’s talking points on the perils of raising the minimum wage and the burden of providing health insurance for theater employees. NATO’s position paper on the Employee Free Choice Act has vanished following a website redesign, though I will not soon forget NATO’s memorable description of card check as “union elections by ambush.”)

The Raid_1954Shaving thirty seconds off each trailer sounds modest and it certainly won’t allow theater owners to fit in an extra show. One suspects that the guidelines represent little more than a shallow show of solidarity with trailer-wary audiences. If NATO really wanted to improve the moviegoing experience, they could regulate or curtail the pre-trailer advertisements that practically begin the moment the previous show ends!

This presumptive antipathy towards trailers is hardly universal. As our projectionist and programmer Julian Antos notes:

People who complain about trailers being too long (or too numerous) do not love cinema. They may love “movies”—a term which here means any moving picture, on any screen, anywhere—but they’re the same people who have the gall to ask how long a movie is (the same question as “are we there yet?”) or what a movie is about (a movie is not “about,” a movie “is!”). They compare films to the books they’re based on, and don’t stay until the very end of the credits. People who complain about trailers have no knowledge of the care that went into bringing them to the screen. And they have no love for the beautiful MPAA green band. ’Tis a beacon of the cinema! Everyone I know who WORKS at a movie theater LOVES trailers. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good sense of how the public feels about them.

And there’s the rub. Before we get exercised about jackbooted thugs dictating the length of our trailers, it’s important to remember that public recognition of trailers is a relatively recent phenomenon. For many years, “trailer” was an advanced form of industry lingo for something better known to the general public as “coming attractions” or “the previews.” (Ever contrarian, theater types preferred “prevues” when they deigned to use the popular vernacular.) Trailers were so named because they often trailed the feature, a kind of chaser from the days when movies were screened continuously and audiences wandered in and out as they pleased. (This naturally raises the question: are trailers meant as stirring promotional material or something just irritating enough to rouse the sleeping drunks from their seats after the last show of the evening? In the multi-valence world of cinema exhibition, can it not be both?)

Trailers on CoreThe shift in audience awareness of trailers reflects broader trends in media consumption over the last fifteen or so years. With trailer watchers migrating from Entertainment Tonight to the balkanized pastures of the internet, the casual moviegoer has merged with the superfan. Likewise, the proliferation of the audio commentaries and supplemental material—once a pricey, elitist laserdisc fixture—has made every DVD buyer a potential expert on her favorite movie. Television viewing has followed a parallel course; the constant churn of undifferentiated weekly content is now analyzed in minute detail, with formerly arcane, insider signifiers like the episode title cited by everyone. (Here, too, DVD has been crucial, because the proliferation of season-by-season box sets trains viewers to regard television in industry terms, as a cohesive, long-form narrative instead of ephemeral “Must See TV.”) In all cases, the fans have become deeply embedded in the product and the process.

As with so many things, film collectors were here first. I know of no film collector who looks down upon trailers, and many seem to harbor almost as much (or perhaps more?) affection for these mini-movies as they do regular features. Civilian audiences complain of endless trailers at the movie theater; film collectors always want more. They spend hours splicing together reels and reels of the stuff, hoping to impress audiences with the perfect trailer compilation.

Trailers also pose a practical advantage: you can fit twenty or thirty in the shelf space required for a simple feature. In some cases, they’re necessary adjuncts to the feature, as when a trailer presents scenes or dialogue absent from the final cut of the movie itself. (The Master is a good recent example: “I know you’re trying to calm me down but just say something that’s true” may be one of Joaquin Phoenix’s most emblematic, moving lines, but it survives only in the trailer.) The trailer may also represent something aesthetically better than the finished film, such as IB Technicolor trailers advertising features that were released only in fade-prone Eastmancolor or 70mm trailers for features that circulated only in 35mm. (The green band at the top of this post comes from a 70mm trailer for Unforgiven.)

Great GatsbyAnother collector’s defense of trailers: they sometimes survive long after the pictures they promoted have vanished, leaving the disreputable trailer as our only glimpse at important pictures like Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot or Herbert Brenon’s contemporaneous rendering of The Great Gatsby. Both fragments are available on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s More Treasures from the Film Archives DVD box set.

The pride that film collectors vest in their trailer reels is touching. Any schmuck can invite you to his basement to watch a movie; only a master can curate a varied program of trailers. At the annual Cinefest convention, Ray Fiola habitually presents an hour-long block of trailers on 16mm, often arranged thematically or by studio. Jack Theakston presents an equally storied mix of trailers, snipes, and shorts at Capitolfest in Rome, New York. And Jake Perlin recently capped an exhaustive Jean-Luc Godard retrospective with a 35mm JLG trailer show, with many of the prevues cut by the cantankerous Swiss.

I doubt that NATO can even conceive of the trailer as a platform for Godard’s disjunctive art, but the trade group’s recent guidelines arbitrarily circumscribe and limit the form for everybody. Two minutes? Did audiences ever complain about the six-minute trailer for Psycho wherein Hitchcock offered a guided tour of the Bates Motel? What about the five-minute In Harm’s Way trailer that featured Otto Preminger bellowing directions from a submarine platform. (Preminger’s movie came out roughly a quarter-century after the Pearl Harbor bombing that it depicts. Can we imagine a similarly irreverent trailer about, say, the Challenger explosion today?)

In Harms WayIt’s easy to elevate the trailer to sanctified movie art when an undisputed auteur is involved. (For that matter, there’s also Orson Welles’s highly unconventional trailer for Citizen Kane and his extended prevue for F for Fake, or the wonderful Lubitsch-hosted trailer for The Shop Around the Corner.) Much rarer is an acknowledgement of trailer makers as artists themselves. An especially elaborate and arty preview for Robert Altman’s Images credits Jean Fouchet as the author of trailer, but it’s the exception that proves the rule.  (Trailer voice-over talent received an unexpected, and fictional, showcase in last year’s feminist rom com In a World …)

Altman-Fouchet_ImagesAnonymous, too, are the composers of trailer music cues, which are often written and recorded long before the film’s official score is complete. The prolific trailer composer John Beal broke the mold and effectively reclaimed his contributions when he released a 2-CD compilation on the Sonic Images label in 1998. Much more than muzak, Coming Soon: The John Beal Trailer Project functions as an encyclopedic, shape-shifting revue of pop styles, not unlike the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs.

John BealPerhaps the anonymity of trailers constitutes their secret weapon. Since no one expects them to function like capital-M Movies, they have more leeway in rhetoric and scope. The original trailer for The Grapes of Wrath addresses the reception of the novel and the ginned-up anticipation of the movie version—peripheral topics that exist beyond the strictly narrative preoccupations of the feature itself. Likewise, the trailer for Night Nurse makes explicit the premise and promise of the movie—that the secret world of nurses rates as a roiling national obsession, a racket just waiting for its top to be blown clear off. At times, trailers even attempt a kind of pidgin autocriticism, as when Astor Pictures attempted to sell future art house favorite Last Year at Marienbad as a glorified movie of a choose-your-own-adventure novel.

Hollywood movies, even in our allegedly post-modern era, rarely address the audience directly, but trailers exist in a perpetual second-person state. The mode exalts in complicity, demands our engagement in an unashamed, smiling way. Prior to the 3D revival, trailers were the last bastion of an enlarged, aggressive form of cinema ballyhoo that recalls an earlier age of unfashionably forthright spectatorship.

Trailers possess an aesthetic, and a distinctive, legitimate one at that. We can conjure them out of the air. Consider this passage from Roger Ebert’s review of Entrapment:

Watching the film, I imagined the trailer. Not the movie’s real trailer, which I haven’t seen, but one of those great 1950s trailers where big words in fancy typefaces come spinning out of the screen, asking us to Thrill! to risks atop the world’s tallest building, and Gasp! at a daring bank robbery, and Cheer! as towering adventure takes us from New York to Scotland to Malaysia. A trailer like that would be telling only the simple truth. It also would perhaps include a few tantalizing shots of Zeta-Jones lifting her leather-clad legs in an athletic ballet designed to avoid the invisible beams of security systems. And shots of a thief hanging upside-down from a 70-story building. And an audacious raid through an underwater tunnel. And a priceless Rembrandt. And a way to steal $8 billion because of the Y2K bug. And so on.

It’s not uncommon to hear people, especially critics, complain that a finished film plays like little more than a trailer for itself, or perhaps the toy or video game tie-in that springs from it. Michael Bay takes flack for cutting his movie as if they were trailers, but I’ve still never seen a feature film that sustains the rhythmic precision, the spatiotemporal flexibility, or the anything-can-happen narrative buoyancy of the best trailers. The true ninety-minute trailer would be a radical cinematic event, and one I would very much look forward to.

Citizen Kane_1941

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We Are the 92%: The Wolf of Wall Street and the End of 35mm

WoWS One-SheetNo sooner had this blog observed that film’s death watch was leveling off than the Los Angeles Times delivered a bombshell: Paramount Pictures was the first of the big studios to drop 35mm, with Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues being its last title released on film. Henceforth, all Paramount titles would be DCP only, beginning with The Wolf of Wall Street. (How ironic that, in one of Wolf’s best scenes, Leonardo DiCaprio teaches his charges how to scam small-time investors by selling them shares of Kodak before moving on to worthless penny stocks.)

Richard Verrier’s Times piece was thinly sourced, with the studio refusing to comment and the “theater industry executives” who leaked the news remaining anonymous. The article included no quotes from the memo itself, nor any indication of how many people received it. In some ways, this is old news. Anchorman 2 was released a month ago, and the gist of the Paramount memo was circulating on specialist message boards like back in November. At least one forum member cited a Wolf booking at a 35mm venue, but the balance of the evidence suggests that the phantom memo is, in fact, true.

So, what do we take from this event, other than a swell piece of movie trivia fit for a future Jeopardy! tournament?

Although such an announcement was expected for some time, few wanted to take credit for it. As the Times explained:

Paramount has kept its decision under wraps, at least in Hollywood.

The reticence reflects the fact that no studio wants to be seen as the first to abandon film, which retains a cachet among some filmmakers. Some studios may also be reluctant to give up box-office revenue by bypassing theaters that can show only film. About 8% of U.S. movie theater screens are equipped to show movies only on film.

A broader perspective makes Paramount’s decision less surprising. To the casual observer, 8% of American screens sounds like a significant figure, especially when many movies barely recoup costs or fail outright. Wouldn’t the studios want every possible screen available—film, digital, or otherwise? Can the industry afford to simply write off this stubborn 8%? In absolute terms, if we accept the commonly cited figure of 40,000 screens, the film laggards represent a not-insubstantial 3,200 screens.

Drive-In ProjectionDoes that mean that each screen represents a principled film holdout, dedicated to maintaining the material heritage of the medium? Of course not. Many of the non-digital screens are simply low-volume outposts, without the audience or cash flow to justify the $50,000-$100,000 per-screen investment required for a digital conversion. We’re talking about rural theaters, drive-ins, military bases, second-run houses, undercapitalized independents,  and the like. These locations may account for 8% of the total screens, but they surely represent much less than 8% of total industry revenue—probably something closer to 2 to 3%, if that. Should the studios continue to support an expensive system of parallel film-and-DCP distribution infrastructure to nurture this declining market or simply shutter low-performing locations like any rational national retail chain?

In the old Hollywood business model, the answer might not be so clear-cut. Maximum revenue was extracted at every possible level of the industry, with a complex system of runs, clearances, and zones made possible through the vertical integration of the industry. Since the same outfits manufactured, distributed, and sold the product, they usually kept the largest, most profitable locations for themselves and allowed the lesser screens to be run by small-time operators. If these bottom feeders wanted to offer a couple bucks to run a beat-up print of a movie that played the downtown palaces a year ago, why leave money on the table? Since most every studio booked their titles as a slate, the individual performance of each title hardly mattered; a predictable, systematized revenue stream that yielded shareholder dividends was more important. The studio (often back-stopped by a respectable New York bank) spent all the capital and reaped all the rewards.

This arrangement came crashing down in 1948 when the Supreme Court ordered Paramount and its co-defendants to divest of their theater chains and earn an honest, non-monopolistic living. The studio system changed dramatically; without a captive market contracted to play each and every film on a slate, the overhead costs associated with an ever-churning production assembly line became unsustainable. No standing sets, no seven-year contracts, no new picture shipped every single week. Each movie became its own isolated business proposition, with theatrical (and later, ancillary) revenue closely scrutinized.

Today’s studios release around ten to twenty movies a year and the financial arrangements are as complicated as the production logistics. Rather than emanating from a mogul’s head or a studio script department, movies come packaged by independent producers who yoke their projects to studio largesse. The studios don’t provide facilities or talent, but access to financing. All the studios, save Disney, have financing partners like Legendary, Skydance, or RatPac who underwrite most (or all) of the production costs and split the gross proceeds. In some cases, the production cost is born entirely by the financing partner, the studio handling marketing and distribution only.

It’s only in this context that Paramount’s Wolf of Wall Street decision makes sense.

Paramount has scaled back more seriously than any other major studio. They released eight films last year—none of them record-breaking, global blockbusters, but none of them embarrassing flops like R.I.P.D. or 47 Ronin either. They released nothing theatrically between World War Z on June 21 and Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa on October 25—a very nearly unprecedented four-month gap. Playing a conservative game without preposterously expensive would-be franchise launchers like The Lone Ranger, the operation is lean and disciplined enough to take a calculated risk like dropping 35mm release prints.

Red_Granite_Pictures_LogoThe Wolf of Wall Street is also the ideal test case for the proposition for a variety of reasons. At 179 minutes, it’s a long film. Every extra minute requires more film stock in every release print, which costs money; so long as the DCP file still fits on a standard hard drive, there’s no additional, per-unit expense associated with this indulgence. (Whether the theaters are content to schedule fewer showtimes, and thus sell fewer tickets, is another matter.) Business for Wolf has been concentrated on the coasts and in high-density urban markets, where conversion compliance is undoubtedly higher. And given its infamously R-rated anal aerobics, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t exactly invite heart-tugging headlines. (Just imagine: “Mom ‘N’ Pop Theater Shutters, Can’t Show Scorsese’s Latest ‘Ludes ‘N’ Hookers Fantasia on Film.”)

But most important, The Wolf of Wall Street was financed entirely by production partner Red Granite. Paramount is responsible for distribution and marketing costs (which may be considerable, given Wolf’s Oscar ambitions), but it does not need to recoup the film’s $100,000,000 production budget. Paramount stands to take a substantial distribution fee regardless, while Red Granite must make its money back through international pre-sales and eventual domestic profits. Ultimately, it’s in everyone’s interests for The Wolf of Wall Street to do blockbuster business, but the bottom line risk of bypassing marginal, film-only venues is quite minimal for Paramount.

What about the Times’ speculation that the move might alienate pro-film talent? This is harder to quantify, and few working filmmakers can afford the luxury of blowing up an in-development project to make a polemical point about celluloid origination.

Still, there are a surprising number of filmmakers publicly rallying to film’s defense, including unlikely allies like Joe Swanberg, whose latest Sundance entry, Happy Christmas, is the first thing he’s shot on 16mm since film school. Alex Ross Perry, sounding a bit like a confident professor who stresses that we live in an era of ‘late capitalism,’ reports that “shooting on film isn’t a choice, it is the default decision and video is a choice.” Other established figures like James Gray continue to mount a defense of film at festival appearances around the world:

But I think the power of what is new is really in some ways what is damaging, because let’s say everyone was shooting digital — the whole world, Steven Spielberg, Chris Nolan, all those guys, they were all shooting digital — and then all of a sudden I came out with this product and said “Well there’s this thing, it doesn’t see in pixels, it sees in grain, which is more like your eye sees, and it has a better contrast ratio than digital and it has a better color representation,” everybody would be like “This new thing — film — I gotta change to film.” I can’t understand why everyone wants to migrate to a medium that is — in my mind — objectively worse.

It’s difficult to imagine filmmakers—even ones as powerful as Spielberg and Nolan—reversing the trend. Nevertheless, there has been a remarkable amount of press coverage of the Paramount decision. (It’s reflective of film’s receding role in American life that many sympathetic websites illustrated stories about the winding down of 35mm film with generic images of 16mm film reels.) There’s a new online petition circulating, too, which asks UNESCO to protect film by designating the medium itself as World Heritage. It’s instigated by cinematographer Guillermo Novarro’s contention that film is “the Rosetta Stone of our times.” (For what it’s worth, the last project that Novarro shot, Pacific Rim, was photographed digitally on the Red Epic camera.)

No one could accuse the film advocates of sitting on the sidelines. The petition reflects widespread energy among filmmakers, archivists, curators, and everyday folks. We’d like to think we play a small part in it: our Film Society recently implemented a projectionist training seminar and sent a representative to Alternative Measures, a Colorado Springs conference devoted to the future of artist-run film labs.

The optimism is infectious, and compelling up to a point. Even if Kodak discontinues film, the thinking goes, boutique labs and individual artists will manufacture film and process it in their bathtubs. Hipsters will demand film, just like vinyl. If the Polaroid process can be resurrected, why not motion picture film?

Ultrasnoic CleanerFact is, motion picture film is an enormously complicated, excruciatingly precise, industrial undertaking. Let’s not kid ourselves about the capital required. It’s quite easy for an upstart to manufacture black and white 16mm camera stock, for example. The problem arises when one honestly accounts for the breadth and diversity of the last century’s film processes. Producing color emulsion or interpreting decades-old timing instructions requires expensive equipment, exquisite craftsmanship, and knowledge that cannot be gleaned from an instruction manual.

It’s quite possible to imagine an enormous international commune-laboratory with rows of ultrasonic cleaners and room-spanning processing tanks. But what about the lifetimes of accumulated knowledge of the lab veterans who need to earn a living from this stuff? Yes, such knowledge could be reverse-engineered or deduced from scratch, as it was years ago. But that innovation happened in a robust market, when substantial R&D investment could yield lucrative returns. What’s the incentive now?

Uncomfortably for some celluloid advocates, robust copyright terms may be the best hope for film’s survival. There may not always be profit to be made from striking new prints, but there will be substantial corporate incentives for maintaining the knowledge base around film. As long as there’s a dime to be made from The Wizard of Oz, Lawrence of Arabia, or Grease, there will be people and machines that can conserve, handle, analyze, and decode these mysterious old film stocks.

The enormous strides in digital restoration over the last decade confirm, rather than refute, this point: archivists and asset managers still search for the best extant film element, which is the essential starting point for any quality restoration. Every time a new software package or consumer platform comes along, archivists frequently scrap their most recent restoration attempt and return anew to the original film elements, hoping to bring out qualities that yesterday’s shiny new toy couldn’t quite capture.

We come now to the ideological conflict at the heart of the varied campaigns to save film. They’re often pitched as a matter of cultural heritage, pure and simple—something that needs to be done, even if it’s not sufficiently profitable for the private sector. Perhaps, as Jonas Mekas has suggested, national film laboratories are the solution to this frustrating problem.

Yet film as we know it was always an industrial-scale, profit-oriented process, even if some of its finest products (home movies, avant-garde films) were not. We may not like this fact, but any mature assessment of the history of the medium must account for it, along with the environmental consequences of mass manufacture and destruction of film stock. There may well be another film paradigm, but it won’t represent triumphant continuity with twentieth-century cinema. Film will be something new again and we can’t wait to see it.

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2013 in Review: Whose Film Is It, Anyway?

DCP DriveGlobal Recession Saves 35mm
Tradition dictates that this blog publish an end-of-year overview looking back on distribution trends and chronicling the fate of film exhibition. Compared to the past two years, we saw fewer signal events in 2013—no headline-grabbing bankruptcies, less saber-rattling ‘do it or die’ announcements from the studios, fewer (or, at least, less hysterical) media stories chronicling the fate of struggling, straggling mom ‘n’ pop operations. Generally speaking, 2013 was the year that digital cinema became so normalized as to be unremarkable.

With the wide-scale digital conversion of first-run movie exhibition accepted as a fait accompli, the belligerence and defiance have cooled considerably. Back in 2011, studios strongly suggested that 35mm prints would be unavailable after 2013. The message was clear: gobble up the carrot of 3D surcharges and labor-saving automation now, before we bring out the stick of absolutely refusing to accommodate your out-moded film equipment. This warning did its job: by the end of 2013, so many theaters had converted that threats as such were less necessary. The threats were also less credible: Kodak, newly emerged from bankruptcy, reports that the studios have contracted for raw film stock through at least 2015.

Hypothetically, all this film stock is needed to serve the international market, which is a patch-work of high compliance territories like Western Europe and slow-growth areas like Latin America. Greece has only converted 20% of its screens, says Kodak, the rare company to cite the debt-ravaged country as a good business prospect. One industry consultant acknowledged that digital equipment manufacturers should expect a major slowdown, perhaps even a “sales cliff,” because exhibitors simply cannot sustain upgrades in the midst of a global credit crunch.

In the US, at least, the hold-outs are generally independently-owned, low-capacity, low-revenue theaters. By definition, they lack the leverage and the cash flow to justify the financial outlay (anywhere between $50,000 – $100,000 per screen) required for a conversion. If they’re forced out of business, whenever the reckoning comes, the impact on Hollywood’s bottom line will be minimal.

Clark TheaterWith the Landmark Century Centre converting to DCP in September 2012, Chicagoans literally had no options for catching first-run titles in 35mm this year. The Gene Siskel Film Center and Music Box—which both lean toward art fare, foreign films, documentaries, and revivals—still maintain 35mm equipment, but new product is often screened digitally. Even when a venue’s managers make every effort to screen film on film, as the Siskel and the Music Box do, 35mm prints are simply often not available. With fewer and fewer prints being struck, distributors are justified, economically if not morally, in saving them for the venues that literally have no other options. Principles be damned, the venues receive the movie in whatever format is available that week, a situation acknowledged in a recent issue of the Film Center’s Gazette. Thus, the Siskel screens Frances Ha in DCP while Doc Films shows it in 35mm; the reverse scenario played out with The Bling Ring. (Both titles were shot digitally.)

Even for audiences for who don’t value film exhibition for its own sake, the recent industry shift has fundamentally changed where and how we see movies in the first place. “Is there any theater in Chicago where one might experience exploitation fare as audiences did in the 60s or 70s?” asked Ben Sachs recently on the Reader’s blog. Properly speaking, there are no theaters marginal enough to qualify as marginal anymore. With first-run exhibition more capital-intensive than ever thanks to DCP, no one can operate a theater on a shoestring. Witness the recent gentrification of the Logan Theater—a venue that, in the film era, didn’t even regularly use aperture plates! A true grindhouse like the long-gone Clark Theater is unimaginable.

It Really Feels Like a Movie!
It is astonishing to realize that, in a little over five years, 35mm film has gone from a widely-supported exhibition format to the sole province of non-theatrical venues: public libraries like Northbrook, college-affiliated groups like Doc Films at the University of Chicago and Block Cinema at Northwestern, and oddball hybrids like the Brew & View.

This scrappy fact stands in marked contrast to the view still prevalent in the archival community that film’s salvation will come through major museums, festivals, and high-powered cultural institutions.  The Chicago International Film Festival, which theoretically possesses the clout to demand 35mm prints for its gala events and centerpiece screenings, screened no 35mm prints this year. Last year, the Festival screened 18 titles on 35mm. (The California-based Arclight, which will bring its premium experience business model to Chicago in 2014, hints that it hopes to become a new home for the Festival and says it will also install 35mm projectors in one auditorium.)

Inside Llewyn DavisThe New York Film Festival, arguably the most prestigious festival in the country, screened a few prints this year, but the vast majority of its offerings were DCP. At an NYFF press conference, Joel Coen lamented that, in all probability, Inside Llewyn Davis would be the last movie he and his brother Ethan make on film—though the NYFF itself screened it digitally. Ironically, the Coens are themselves major figures in the broader conversion story: their O Brother Where Art Thou? was one of the first studio feature that was shot on 35mm but color-corrected entirely through the Digital Intermediate (DI) process.  In 2000, this experimental workflow was necessary to tweak color values in ways that traditional photochemical processing could not achieve. Subsequently, though, the DI became standard practice for almost every American feature film, even ones with much more conventional technical demands.

“I’m glad we shot on film,” Joel Coen said, “but it’s a hybrid thing right now. It all goes into a computer and it’s all heavily manipulated. But still, there’s something that looks different.” Indeed, Inside Llewyn Davis—which just won a Best Cinematography citation from the National Society of Film Critics for Bruno Delbonnel’s delicate, wintry images—does look different for being shot on 35mm and it’s a damn shame that discerning festival audiences have largely seen it projected digitally. (Chicagoans who want to catch Inside Llewyn Davis on 35mm have had only one chance so far: a quietly-promoted sneak preview held at Block Cinema on Dec. 5, with the subsequent commercial run in DCP. Seeing films on 35mm will seemingly require much more planning and semi-clandestine intrigue in the future, which is one reason the Film Society began tracking such screenings on Celluloid Chicago.)

Whether the Coens lack the clout to insist on 35mm screenings or regard the projection format as an inconsequential afterthought in our hybrid age is largely beside the point. The Coens are among a handful of A-list directors whose work testifies to the continued artistic vitality of shooting films on film (along with Paul Thomas Anderson, James Gray, Christopher Nolan, Terrence Malick, J. J. Abrams, Lee Daniels, and Quentin Tarantino) and even they can’t or won’t or don’t screen on 35mm.

New Beverly CinemaConsider, too, the Hollywood Report’s recent account of Wong Kar-Wai’s appearance at the New Beverly Cinema to promote his Oscar hopeful The Grandmaster:

Wong and [cinematographer Phillippe] Le Sourd were particularly happy to see The Grandmaster at the New Beverly. “We shot this film on film,” said Wong, to the first of many bursts of applause. “This is the first time we show it on print. I would like to thank Harvey Weinstein personally for making this happen. It’s my first time to watch this film in 35 mm. With this audience, watermarks, secret codes — it really feels like a movie!” Added Le Sourd, “The projector’s doing something very nice for me: you see a little bit of flicker, the texture is beautiful.”

The New Beverly—which is underwritten by Tarantino and instigated a famous “Save 35mm” petition a few years back—is an ideal home for the 35mm unveiling of The Grandmaster, but it’s beyond sad that Wong Kar-Wai (!) had to wait until this screening to see his own film in his preferred format. Does a 35mm screening now require clearance from no less than Harvey Weinstein himself? (The same Harvey Weinstein, I might add, who nearly consigned Gray’s apparently breathtaking The Immigrant to VOD purgatory after a handful of DCP festival screenings.)

Ultimate Sight. Ultimate Sound.
A little over a decade ago, Jonathan Rosenbaum published a collection polemically titled Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See. At that time, Rosenbaum’s primary example of corporate curtailment of screen freedom was Harvey Weinstein (again!) conspiratorially buying up art house films (Through the Olive Trees, Dead Man, Young Girls of Rochefort, etc.) and then dumping them in a handful of theaters or refusing to release them at all. If the specifics are dated, the broader question — to what extent are our innocent viewing choices dictated by submerged corporate prerogatives? — certainly is not. Consumer choice is most visibly limited in the 35mm vs. DCP dust-up, but it’s hardly the only case.

In some instances, the choice presented is either false or actively muddied. The introduction of DCP was supposed to level the playing field for theaters everywhere, granting a single-screen in Peoria the same claim to a flawless presentation as “America’s Multiplex,” the AMC Empire 25.

In reality, chains are still trying to differentiate their product, even when the distinctions are minimal. Reviews and honest-to-goodness layman’s word-of-mouth insisted that Gravity had to be seen in 3D (preferably IMAX 3D) or not at all. The hype was enormously successful, with some 80% of ticket-buyers opting to catch Cuaron’s experiential outer space survival drama in 3D—an all-time record. (These days, a typical 3D release commands a stereoscopic share closer to 40%.) IMAX 3D screenings carry a super-premium ticket price, but to what end? The giant screen colossus, which once offered a genuinely unique 70mm dual-strip stereoscopic experience, now utilizes 2K DCP just like almost every other system, often shoehorned onto merely large-ish multiplex screens. (The post-production workflow for Gravity was wholly 2K, so conceivably the benefit from a better projection system would be blunted anyway.)


Yet even as IMAX actively tries to act like everybody else, everybody else keeps trying to ape IMAX. When I arrived at Regal City North for a Christmas Day screening of The Wolf of Wall Street I learned that the only auditorium showing the new Scorsese picture was RPX-equipped—the Regal Premium Experience, purporting to provide the super-charged, posh, perfect presentation that every paying customer has every right to expect from any theater in the first place. (AMC pushes a similar premium ETX brand and Muvico offers MUVIXL.) As DCP screenings go, Wolf of Wall Street looked fine and the RPX-monogramed seats were more expensive, if not necessarily more comfortable, than the multiplex standard—but the premium pricing provided little return.

Regal promises that RPX will be ‘the best movie experience available or your next movie is FREE.’ I wonder whether I would be granted a free ticket if I compared the Wolf of Wall Street show unfavorably to the Music Box’s 70mm screening of The Master back in February—a genuinely premium experience that was actually four dollars cheaper than the RPX matinee.

Make It a Blockbuster Night?
How much do ordinary moviegoers actually keep up on these marketing directives and corporate acronyms? Put another way, do these half-assed attempts to manufacture and massage demand actually create audience awareness?

In November the debauched rental juggernaut Blockbuster announced the imminent closure of its remaining non-franchise retail locations. The news surprised many—namely those who thought that Blockbuster had shuttered years earlier. Though the Internet eagerly commemorated Blockbuster’s demise with characteristic snark—and indeed, fate sometimes smiles even upon Blockbuster, as when a Hawaii outlet logged a DVD of This Is the End as the chain’s iconic last rental—few reckoned with the ball-busting scope of the video shop’s legacy. For years, the allegedly family-friendly chain dictated the outer limits of sexual expression in Hollywood cinema by refusing to stock NC-17-rated tapes—even while its shelves overflowed with truly prurient direct-to-video, purportedly erotic ‘thrillers.’ If a Hollywood film couldn’t be sold to Blockbuster down the line, it could scarcely be financed in the first place. (Were it not for Blockbuster, how many films would have followed in the transgressive footsteps of Showgirls and Crash?)

Blockbuster_IFCThe Blockbuster legacy is also, of course, deeply strange. While on its last legs, Blockbuster sought any possible advantage over Netflix and Redbox. Consequently, Blockbuster entered exclusive rental agreements with the likes of the Weinstein Company (again!) and IFC, making everybody’s least favorite lowest-common-denominator chain the improbable DVD purveyor of such fare as Jacques Rivettes’s Ne touchez pas la hache, Gus van Sant’s Paranoid Park, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Le voyage du ballon rouge. Consider just how elastic, and ultimately meaningless, the Blockbuster brand was. Millions of millennials can recall the disarmingly breezy cadence of those long-ago TV ads imploring you to “Make It a Blockbuster Night”—but how many of them could even begin to define what a Blockbuster Night was? What did it mean and what did it have to do with anybody’s broader idea of The Movies?

Sadly, Blockbuster conquered America but never aspired to be anything but a bland behemoth. Ubiquitous but chided by nearly everyone, Blockbuster couldn’t even claim culture wars relevance. Antipathy towards the brand never stoked the Red State-Blue State divide like Chick-fil-A or compactly symbolized suburban sameness like TGI Friday’s. Its market share was 3,000 miles wide, but its brand loyalty scarcely five inches deep.

Like many big box stores, Blockbuster shrewdly undercut local businesses everywhere, only to eventually collapse under its own weight, leaving communities across America with nothing. Not surprisingly, the few remaining video stores represent everything Blockbuster stood against: deep catalog, curated selection, flexible membership terms. Still, Scott Mendelson is not entirely wrong when he presents a contrarian defense of the Blockbuster:

For the moment, with rental DVDs on the verge of death and online streaming not yet caught up to it in terms of quality, we are stuck with an inferior delivery system which has supplanted a tried-and-true delivery system for the medium we call “home video”.

I mourn not for the giant corporation known as Blockbuster Video, but rather for the product known as “DVD rental” that is quickly becoming an endangered species. Those of you who prefer consumer choice and quality above convenience should mourn as well.

fox_firmwareDoubtless, this argument sounds familiar to many 35mm partisans.

The Object Itself
Celluloid enthusiasts and DVD viewers have historically come out on opposite sides when debating fundamental questions about cinema, such as “35mm—Ineffable Beauty or Anachronistic Scratch-Magnet?” or “Communal Moviegoing—Invaluable Experience or Brat-Infested Popcorn Pit?” Still, they should be prepared to co-exist as strange bedfellows for the foreseeable future, equally invested in the unfashionable perpetuation of physical media.

One needn’t be a luddite to recognize the advantages of movies held in your hand rather than on someone else’s cloud. Netflix customers who’ve weaned themselves from DVDs and Blu-rays shouldn’t be surprised to see streaming titles regularly vanish without explanation. Several prominent titles, including Top Gun and Titanic, disappeared from Netflix as 2013 drew to a close, the inevitable consequence of licensing contracts coming up for renewal after Hollywood belatedly recognized just how lucrative streaming rights could be.

In related news, Amazon customers learned that digital movie files that they had purchased outright were, in fact, subject to withdrawal and recall at any time at the sole discretion of the licensor. Wisconsin dad Bill Jackson received a surprising amount of press coverage following his frustrated attempt to stream a Disney holiday special that he had already bought from the online Goliath. Jackson commented:

I don’t think you can buy digital content at this time. I don’t think it’s possible. There may be a button that says buy now, but that does not exist. It’s a rental. Any promise that it’s going to be there forever, it’s only good as long as the company exists and decides it’s OK.

Even Blu-ray consumers are making a trade-off: video and audio quality are much better than DVD, but key disc features (even, in extreme cases, the ability to play the movie in the first place!) are dependent on constant firmware updates. Supplemental material that once lived in perpetuity on disc is now available only through a broadband connection and the ongoing benevolence of the studio. Region coding, which could be easily circumvented on DVD, is more robust (though hardly insurmountable) for the high-def disc. Collectors just want to own copies of their favorite movies and the industry is slowly nudging them away from that paradigm.

Of course, film collectors are familiar with this attitude. Though studios regularly leased and sold 16mm prints to private customers as late as the 1940s, film collecting as such has been an illegal, clandestine hobby for the past few decades. These prints remain studio property, leased to theater owners for a specific contract term, and anybody else who has them must have stolen them. In Hollywood, it’s flat-out theft, even if the print was rescued from a dumpster or silver reclamation facility, even if the studio doesn’t give a damn about some old movie that nobody wants to see anyway.

Basement ScreeningsThis stance has softened somewhat in recent years, since private collectors often possess unique copies of films that would otherwise be lost. (Almost every extant silent era Universal title, for example, owes its salvation to private collectors who retained 16mm Universal Show-at-Home prints after the 35mm originals were lost or destroyed.) Still, any archive hoping to receive a proper chain of provenance for an incoming film collection should adjust expectations accordingly. Memories of FBI raids in the 1970s still sting for a certain generation of film collectors, and the justifiable paranoia born from that unfortunate era will never dissipate.

We’ve speculated before that the final home of 35mm and 16mm may well be not the theater or the museum, but the basement screening room. Our friend Peter Conheim, who operates one such underground venue in the Bay Area, was recently profiled by a quizzical KQED reporter. The whole article is very much worth your time, but one passage stands out:

When I ask Conheim if there’s a Honus Wagner card of film prints, he names the British Star Wars, processed in Technicolor. It doesn’t fade, he says. “They were still using that process in England up to 1977 or so. Those are really sought after, because even the original negative has faded.” A Technicolor print of Vertigo is also valuable. “I saw one sell for $10,000 two or three years ago. I’ve never seen a Star Wars British version for sale. I know two people who have them. One guy is so freaked out it’s going to be a disappointment he’s never opened the box it came in. I’ve been standing in front of the box with him many times, he’s like, ‘I’ll get there.’”

Whether it’s RPX or IMAX, it’s impossible to imagine a digital file with such intimidating aura and history.

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Cinema & Shutdown:
What the Library of Congress Teaches Us About Public Life

LC LogoIn the short history of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, we’ve faced some formidable challenges. In our first season, a 16mm print of Silver Lode was lost in transit. In our second season, one of the Portage Theater’s 35mm projectors fell off its pedestal right before a show of Comanche Station. And of course, back in May we found ourselves locked out of the Portage with no advance notice, collateral damage in the new landlord’s curious scorched earth campaign against his own theater. These kinds of obstacles are familiar enough for any film exhibitor or small business owner: logistics problems, equipment malfunctions, property disputes.

But there’s another looming problem that’s definitely out of the ordinary: the ongoing shutdown of the federal government.

Like many of the world’s film societies, museums, and cinematheques, we regularly borrow 35mm prints from the Moving Image, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. If you’ve enjoyed our screenings of So’s Your Old Man, High Treason, Heat Lightning, or The Great Gabbo, you really have the Library of Congress to thank. They conserved, preserved, and circulated all of these titles, as well as Joseph Losey’s M, which we plan to screen on November 6.

The Film Society is hardly the only venue in this boat. Across town, Doc Films at the University of Chicago has a Library print of All Quiet on the Western Front booked for Oct. 29. The AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland is supposed to screen Native Son on Oct. 26 and 29. The Library’s new print of the indie exploitation/protest film I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany is slated to run at MoMA’s renowned ‘To Save and Project’ preservation festival on Oct. 26. The Wisconsin Cinematheque has announced The Crowd Roars for Nov. 9. (An Oct. 4 screening of the same film has already been canceled by the North Carolina Museum of Art.)

Gabbo_LOCOf course, all of these shows—including our M screening—may still happen, but based on recent developments, the speedy resumption of government services looks increasingly unlikely. The work of the Library of Congress is one of the many government services deemed inessential, and thus suspended until Congress approves a continuing resolution to reopen and fund the federal government. Access to the thousands of digitized treasures on the Library of Congress web portal, inaccessible for the first few days of the shutdown, has largely been restored, but the site still carries this message: “Due to the temporary shutdown of the federal government, all Library buildings are closed, all public events are canceled, and all inquiries and requests to the Library of Congress web-based services will not be received or responded to until the shutdown ends.”

A single screening of M is obviously is a miniscule part of this larger paralysis. Whatever inconvenience this represents for the Film Society is absolutely nothing compared to the 800,000 federal employees denied a regular paycheck and perhaps even backpay. We might lose a few bucks, which is trivial when set next to the real economic damage provoked by this needless shutdown: decimated buying power for federal workers, uncertainty for government contractors, threats of eviction and foreclosure.

We plead not for special treatment, but expansive context. This episode merits discussion because of the misleading impulse to treat the shutdown as an abstraction in faraway Washington, a routine political skirmish that might affect some faceless bureaucrats but barely touches the everyday lives of regular American citizens. In fact, the work of the federal government is so diverse and wide-ranging that many of us don’t necessarily recognize the myriad small ways that this work undergirds our cultural landscape.

A relative handful might be denied the chance to see this 35mm print of M and that fact may not travel very far outside film circles. That’s the point: we often move in cloistered subcultures, unable to connect isolated events to a broader picture. There are surely thousands of comparable cancelations, delays, and disruptions directly arising from the shutdown—visible to specialists but below the radar of the general public. There’s potent symbolic value in images of veterans denied access to monuments consecrated in their honor, but we needn’t pretend that they constitute the only offensive residue of the shutdown. Public sites like parks illustrate the stakes, but what about public objects?

• • •

Paper PrintThe Library of Congress is fairly unique among film archives. Its collection grew in fits and starts, its preservation activities haphazard. Unlike so many peers, it is not marked by the legacy of a visionary curator like the Museum of Modern Art’s Iris Barry, the George Eastman House’s James Card, the Cinémathèque francaise’s Henri Langlois, or the Belgian Cinémathèque Royale’s Jacques Ledoux. To say that the Library of Congress arose from a bureaucratic, almost accidental, vision is not a criticism.

Movies did not receive official recognition as a form subject to copyright until 1912. Before that date, producers who wanted to avail themselves of this legal protection had to commit a queer, medium-effacing fiction: registering their motion pictures with the Library’s Copyright Office as a series of successive still photographs printed to rolls of paper. Ironically, the Library of Congress is probably the first film archive built on a foundation of non-filmic materials.

This requirement eventually changed, of course, but its implications are still rippling through the Library. Patrick Loughney, who currently heads the Packard Campus complex in Culpeper, Virginia, which houses the Library’s film archive, aptly described the importance of this legacy when interviewed for Kino’s Edison DVD box set nearly a decade ago:

One of the important things about [the paper print collection] is that it’s a randomly acquired collection of motion pictures. In other words, it’s a selection of motion pictures. While not complete in its documentation of all the films that were produced or distributed in America, it is a collection that was self-selected. These were films that were acquired for rather anonymous legal purposes. They were not chosen by a curator. They were not chosen by a later generation to supposedly document the important films of an era or the films that documented the history of cinematic art. The importance of that is that they represent both the mundane and the important types of films being produced . . . . They were never looked on as motion pictures. They were looked on as legal records in the archives of the Copyright Office.

Crucially, this ethos never exactly left the Library. Their ecumenical collection, arising as it does from the practical, value-neutral copyright process and robust efforts to plug in gaps, is very strange and wide-ranging. It includes everything from the latest blockbuster and the Warner Bros. nitrate materials (donated when the studio saw no lasting value in its old negatives) to independent efforts and forgotten silent features.

The Library’s preservation efforts, which have been in operation almost continuously since the late 1960s, are similarly catholic. They’ve restored the long-neglected ‘silent’ version of Best Picture honoree All Quiet on the Western Front, the ribald, uncensored cut of Baby Face, and provocatively marginal fare like Lash of the Penitentes, a bit of mid-’30s religious exploitation ballyhoo that plays like junkyard Tarkovsky. They’ve resurrected films that literally shift the borders of American film history, like the Argentine ex-pat version of Native Son starring Richard Wright, or The Flying Ace, the silent aviation melodrama with an all-African-American cast, or one third of a nation …, an interesting screen version of the famous ‘Living Newspaper’ that arose from the WPA Theater Project.

M (1951)Directed by Joseph LoseyShown from left: David Wayne. Janine PerreauJoseph Losey’s M is a perfect illustration of the necessity of the Library of Congress. An American remake of one of the towering masterpieces of world cinema, this is the kind of film that many will automatically underrate as a simple curiosity, a footnote. Produced independently and leased on a short-term basis to a major studio that had no financial incentive to retain its negative or perform expensive preservation work down the road, M fell through the cracks. There’s a well-worn former release print in the collection of the British Film Institute and it’s circulated some (it was shown in Madison this past April), but an American film deserves a place in an American archive. M is not an orphan film, exactly: after Columbia’s theatrical run, the rights reverted to producer Seymour Nebenzal and those rights have been passed down to his son, Harold Nebenzal, now 91. Who but the Library of Congress would have the resources and the resolve to create a new 35mm print of this film? (It’s moving, too, to contemplate the fate of director Joseph Losey: once hounded out of his own country for his Communist sympathies, now his films are preserved by the federal government.)

The future of the Library of the Congress, post-shutdown, is equally important to our film heritage. With the demand for photochemical work shrinking and commercial film labs closing, the Library’s in-house film laboratory will become increasingly important. Along with the lab run by UCLA, it may well be the facility of last resort in an increasingly digital world. This laboratory will necessarily operate in the public interest, preserving not only films but the craftwork that makes their preservation possible in the first place.

• • •

All of the arguments in the preceding section have power and legitimacy only because the films preserved by the Library of Congress are available for public viewing.  One of the most important aspects of the Library of Congress’s film preservation program is the fact that it is a circulating collection. Prints deposited for copyright purposes cannot leave the Library and there are understandable restrictions upon the circulation of unique prints and flammable nitrate copies. But once a title has been properly preserved by the Library of Congress, a print can be borrowed by a venue with demonstrated film-handling expertise. The venue is responsible for shipping costs and clearing copyright with the appropriate rightsholder, but pays nothing to the Library of Congress. No access fee, no handling fee, no archival inspection fee. It is a free collection. (By comparison, private archives often charge an access fee ranging from $300 to $600 for a single screening, which is cost-prohibitive for some worthwhile venues.)

This is, of course, as it should be. These films are preserved largely through tax revenue and it is the public’s right to see them. Venues that screen these prints are effectively partners assuring the dissemination of our film heritage.

Beyond a doubt, the film preservation activities of the Library of Congress were immaterial to the political calculations surrounding the government shutdown. That its operations have been suspended is incidental to the purported objective of the shutdown—defunding, and thus dismantling, the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, the closure of the Library underlines an incidental and fundamental dividend of the shutdown: the decimation of public trust and public spiritedness.

The Library of Congress and its employees are in an especially precarious position. Silenced by the shutdown and never especially outspoken given the political dimensions of the Congressional appropriations process, these civil servants are effectively invisible in a debate that directly concerns their livelihood. It would be perverse to cancel a screening without emphasizing this fact.

As the organ of a non-profit cultural organization, it’s not the business of this blog to take partisan positions. But is it a partisan position to ask that officials elected to serve in the public interest acknowledge the very idea of public life?


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Burned Out: The Nitrate Legacy

Sabotage_NitrateAlfred Hitchcock frequently cited Sabotage as the film that forced him to refine his technique: suspense above all—or at least, up to a point. It was a mistake, he later reckoned, to mix suspense too closely with sentiment, to tighten the noose while remaining indifferent to the neck. In the film’s most (in)famous sequence, a bomb explodes on a London bus, the work of a terrorist who plants the device on an innocent boy. “I broke the rule,” Hitchcock said, “that the hero is always rescued from danger at the last minute … There were yowls of protest from everyone, especially the mothers.”

This fatal indifference is actually crucial to the effectiveness of Sabotage, which possesses a straight-ahead ruthlessness that Hitchcock’s other British films generally lack. There’s no time for music hall routines or local color here. Not that Sabotage lacks for black humor. All this bus hubbub unfortunately overshadows a wicked irony embroidered into the script; when the boy climbs up to the bus, the operator stops him and informs him that he cannot bring two reels of nitrate film onboard. It’s flammable, after all.

Perhaps only a sadist could chuckle at this moment—the nitrate film is actually the least dangerous thing on the bus, but acknowledging that requires a smirking premonition of annihilation.

This Film Is DangerousQuentin Tarantino borrowed this moment unexpectedly in Inglourious Basterds—a succinct, stern illustration of the vintage film stock’s absolute danger before propelling his cockeyed blow-up-the-Nazis-with-nitrate plot forward.  Certainly Tarantino is not the first to exploit nitrate film’s volatile chemistry. In the 1970s and 1980s, film archivists expressed the urgency of their cause by circulating photographs of the ravages of vault fires and advancing the catchy slogan ‘Nitrate Won’t Wait.’ In 2002, the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) published a heavy tome dedicated to the antiquated film stock—This Film Is Dangerous, a sexy spin on a frequently unsexy profession.

How dangerous was nitrate film, really, and why did a young industry settle upon such an irresponsible standard?

Gasoline, Pine Shavings, and Nitrate of Cellulose
A strip of film consists of two basic layers—the emulsion and the base. The emulsion is the thin, photo-sensitive layer which carries the image and the soundtrack. The base, which comprises about 98% of the film strip’s thickness, is essentially a support backing; its chemical composition contributes nearly nothing to the exposure and development of the image or track. But the chemical makeup of the base is crucial for other reasons, namely the pliability, utility, durability, and longevity of the film. The nitrate base—in continuous, near-exclusive use for 35mm film from 1895 to roughly 1950—happened to be both very robust and very flammable.

The fact that nitrate film could start a severe, self-oxidizing fire when exposed to open flame was not exactly obscure. Nor was such exposure unfathomable: to fill a screen, film had to pass before a very hot light source in the projector. In our age of ubiquitous liability and malpractice litigation, building a business upon such knowledge seems about as rational as decorating a candlemaker’s shop with oily rags.

1897This was not a hypothetical concern. Nitrate fires, while infrequent relative to the wide and rapid diffusion of cinema, could be rather spectacular. One such fire at Paris’s 1897 Charity Bazaar famously claimed 126 lives. (Since burning nitrate produces its own oxygen, even submerging a flaming reel in a vat of water does little to quell the fire. A nitrate fire must burn itself out—which may take quite a while if a fire engulfs a projection booth with two dozen reels of film.)

How could such a dangerous medium enjoy such a broad public life? One would expect the film industry to answer safety concerns with an invocation of professionalism. To return to our candlemaker analogy, it might be dangerous, in theory, to co-mingle flames and flammable material, but only if the amateur candlemaker made a mess of precision craftsmanship. A professional projectionist would never be clumsy as to ignite a reel of nitrate.

Remarkably, though, one detects a faintly blasé attitude toward nitrate within the industry. Motion Picture Theater Management, Harold B. Franklin’s book-length manual from 1928, alludes to the nitrate hazard as an afterthought: “Needless to say, smoking in the booth is strictly prohibited.” One industry apologist, C. Francis Jenkins of the Graphoscope Company, lamented nitrate’s bum rap in a 1920 issue of Educational Film Magazine:

The Post Office strictly refuses to accept dangerous substances for transportation in mail cars, but apparently does not consider motion picture film an extra hazard, for it handles about five hundred tons of it daily, and without mishap . . . .

Nitrate of cellulose motion picture film is not “highly inflammable,” in the sense that widely-used gasoline is, for example. It is not volatile, which is greatly in its favor. It will ignite easily and burn very rapidly when lying in a loose pile just as pine shavings will …. Motion picture film in its usual tightly rolled form cannot readily be ignited with a match; the match will almost invariably burn itself out before the film will blaze. Tightly rolled film is rather difficult to fire; therefore, all film should be handled in this form and kept so, in metal cans or similar containers.

Jenkins’s contrarian cheeriness soon rises to the level of awe-inspiring irresponsibility, or perhaps a Swiftian proposal. Read the following passage and remember that Jenkins is discouraging the use of fireproof projection booths in such non-theatrical venues as schools and churches:

Now as to the desirability of a booth, let me say that in no other human employment involving hazard is it contended that concealing the operator tends to added safety, makes him more careful. “More light on the subject” is always a good slogan. We illuminate dangerous places so that we may minimize the danger. We keep tab on the railroad engineer by a system of block signals. Why, we don’t trust a paid watchman, for we put a clock to watching the watchman. But when it comes to the picture projection risk, we require the operator to work concealed on the assumption that he will be more careful and more diligent in keeping film off the floor and in its metal container and that he will not smoke if he works unseen, even though he may be a cigarette fiend. The concealed booth is an anomaly, a reversal of time-honored safety practice.

We sense a theme here, no? Nitrate film doesn’t cause nitrate fires; cigarettes cause nitrate fires.

Projection Booth_MedUnsurprisingly, the real militancy on the nitrate front came from the projectionists themselves,  who were, after all, the likeliest to suffer the consequences of a flare-up. Often blaming fires on poor booth layout and inadequate union consultation in business matters, the projectionists made a compelling, if unsuccessful case. From an astonishing November 1936 issue of International Projectionist:

Five projectionists in as many widely scattered states of this otherwise glorious Union have died in projection booth fires during the past ninety days. Ninety divided by five is eighteen. Not a bad average, this—especially for an industry that prides itself on the comfort and peace and relaxation and opportunity for escape from dreary reality that it provides daily for the “masses” of this world.

Masses! The word somehow sticks in one’s mind. Maybe this industry of ours that disdains anything less than superlatives must have mass killings, due to its own delinquencies, before it comes out from behind the smoke screen of glamour and romance laid down by high-powered publicity and reveals its true raiment of false front and ballyhoo.

Mixed Media
Although Hollywood frequently downplayed the dangers of nitrate, they did not ignore research about non-flammable replacements. Assorted alternative bases were tested. Some were used in the non-theatrical market, but dubbed insufficiently durable for the usage and abusage of the daily grindhouse. It’s perhaps unfair to judge the sanity of nitrate projection by the prints that have come down to us, often enfeebled by age and adverse storage conditions. When nitrate prints were new and fresh from the lab, they proved quite robust and thus generally safe. Studios may have wanted to replace the flammable film with a less-lethal option, but not if it meant overhauling the infrastructure of distribution.

Nitrate StockWe must remember here that film prints had a very different lifespan in the pre-multiplex era. A film generally did not open simultaneously across the country, which would’ve signaled the distributor’s unease or desperation. A title might open at one major movie palace in downtown Chicago and then filter down to second-, third-, fourth-, even fifth-run neighborhood houses. In other words, prints traveled through many different booths over the course of their useful lives. Switching to an inferior non-flammable stock and regularly replacing prints mid-release would represent a major upset in the supply chain, as compared to the infrequent nuisance of nitrate fires.

The early non-flam options, like diacetate, retain a strange power today. There is an indescribably special something that occurs when cracking open a can and discovering an old diacetate print. (More than one person I know has likened it to the smell of her grandmother’s house.) But it was the non-theatrical venues—churches, schools, libraries, campsites, private homes graced with Kodascope projectors—that handled these brittle diacetate prints, in all manner of gauges (35mm, 16mm, 28mm, etc.)

The theatrical venues had to wait until the early 1950s for a new, non-nitrate standard. Triacetate was finally dubbed sufficiently durable and the switch occurred with relatively little mainstream fanfare.  One wonders how clean this transition really was, and how long old nitrate films sat around the print exchanges. On the production side, nitrate certainly did not vanish instantaneously. The negatives of An American in Paris, Native Son, and Saga of Anatahan were all assembled from a mix of nitrate and safety material. (Contra the “nitrate won’t wait” mantra, it’s the safety stock in these transitional negatives that often deteriorates first and thus bedevils preservationists.)

 Non-Flam, Non-Fun?
Given the widely documented problems with nitrate and the totality of its eradication from the theatrical world, is it at all surprising that this “dangerous film” would later become enshrined as a fetish totem for cinephiles? Archivists and critics of a certain generation maintained that nitrate simply looked more lustrous, more silvery, more cinematic than its ho-hum, triacetate replacement.

Is this position gospel truth, rosy nostalgia, or something in between? Though black-and-white nitrate did possess greater silver content than triacetate, a base is still a base—it’s the emulsion where the image lives and dies, with the base acting largely as a carrier.

Nitrate BoothEven if nitrate itself possessed no inherent magic, the nitrate era saw generally excellent labwork—at least until World War II and its chemical rationing. Surviving nitrate release prints can be very impressive—but we must remember, too, that producers and labs often opted to made prints directly off the original, irreplaceable camera negative. (Intermediate stocks offered protection, but they were mediocre and consequently avoided as much as possible.) The camera negative might run through a contract printer hundreds of times before being retired, replaced, or simply trashed. All that remained were tattered prints, shoddy dupes, and indifferent intermediates produced as an afterthought—poor starting points for preservation and restoration.

Such practices yielded mouth-watering first generation prints and murky junk for subsequent copies. To complain a new restoration of a nitrate-era film doesn’t hold up next to the original print is simultaneously accurate and ludicrous: the irresponsible, but widely accepted, practice of squeezing every last print out of the camera negative gilded the present at the expense of the future. Nitrate looked great—perhaps greater than audiences deserved.

Direct comparison is, in any case, difficult. While nitrate prints were screened somewhat regularly in museum situations throughout the 1970s, such occasions are quite rare today. In 2000, FIAF and the BFI bid nominally farewell to flammable film with a “Last Nitrate Picture Show” symposium. In America, there are only a handful of venues that advertise their ongoing nitrate activities: the Library of Congress, George Eastman House, UCLA, the Stanford Theatre, the American Cinematheque. (There are, of course, private collectors who still project nitrate in their own homes under the responsibility radar. One friend recalls a nitrate screening of, appropriately enough, the burning-of-Atlanta reel from Gone with the Wind in a collector’s basement.)

As nitrate-safe booths are a distinctly niche operation, there is insufficient critical mass for real certification and licensing. (What legal body would regulate less than a dozen nitrate aspirants?) It is a self-declared designation, a political gesture. To run nitrate responsibly means adopting a mosaic of antique safety precautions, complying with local fire regulations, and applying common sense. (No cigarettes.) At minimum, a nitrate booth should have fire shutters over all port windows, fire suppression accessories on the projector itself, fireproof film storage cabinets, and a policy of no less than two projectionists on duty during nitrate screenings.

Regardless of where one comes down on the nitrate question, it’s crucial that we support venues that continue this quixotic endeavor. We cannot pass judgment on nitrate until we really see it on screen.

Inglourious Nitrate

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The True Story of Tinted Talkies: An Interview with Anthony L’Abbate

ONE HOUR WITH YOU 002Our new season begins on Wednesday with One Hour with You. If you’ve never seen it, you have a wonderful, adult, emotionally resonant musical to look forward to. If you have seen it before—say, on Criterion’s budget-line Eclipse DVD or in a 16mm print at the old LaSalle Bank Cinema—you haven’t really seen it either.

That’s because Universal’s 35mm print is tinted. Derived from a restored negative from UCLA Film and Television Archives, this version doesn’t include any new scenes, but around half of the footage is tinted sepia or lavender. (The remainder of the film is black-and-white.) That makes the print unusual in 2013, but hardly so in 1932.

The Basics
By now most cinephiles are already familiar with the delicate, beautiful tinting and toning summoned to tremendous effect in silent films like The Bluebird, Broken Blossoms, J’accuse, and Upstream. No less than silent pantomime or the elegant, economically-phrased intertitles, color effects constitute a major component of this lost art.

J'AccuseThe effort involved in tinting and toning is astonishing. Tinting could be achieved by immersed already-exposed and -developed rolls of positive film in dye bathes. Simple enough, so long as you wanted only one color; if you wanted multiple colors over the course of a film, each roll had to be dyed in a separate bath. Negatives were assembled in tinting order (i.e., all the blues scenes strung together, next all the sepia scenes, then all the verdante scenes etc.) and printed, processed, and tinted accordingly. Scenes would only be spliced together back in the proper continuity order at very end—a very labor-intensive workflow, since it had to be performed on every single print that shipped out.

Since tinting was done after the image had already been exposed and developed, it filled in the lighter areas of the frame—hence blue skies, amber pastures, etc. Toning, by contrast, actively replaced the silver particles on an exposed and developed print with assorted color chemicals, which colored in the darker areas of the picture. Like tinted prints, toned prints required methodical scene-by-scene assembly after the fact. In combination, though, these processes could produce startling results, such as a pink tint and a dark blue tone for a sunset scene.

For many years, silent films were seen in substandard black-and-white prints, the coloring deemed too expensive or superfluous to replicate. (The instability of the dyes used in Eastmancolor prints and negatives was likely another factor.) A concerted effort on the part of studios, archives, scholars, and private collectors has made the restoration of color tints and tones a top priority in recent years, with some archives revisiting earlier restorations purely to address the color issue.

Most tints and tones are restored by printing to color internegative or flashing the new print prior to development—or adding colors to the Digital Intermediate or video master. Two laboratories—UCLA and Bologna’s L’Immagine Ritrovata—have actually resurrected the original process, dyes and all, to generally pleasing results. Among the modern dye prints to recently play in Chicago: The Adventures of Prince Achmed at the Music Box last year and Flower of Doom at the Gene Siskel Film Center during the last touring edition of the UCLA Festival of Preservation.

Glorious B&WWhere Has All the Color Gone?
Tinting and toning fell into disfavor toward the climax of the silent era. As the film industry became increasingly capitalized, a veneer of sophistication took hold as well. Tinting may have been fine in the primitive nickelodeon days back when pictures were pitched at excitable, illiterate immigrants, the thinking went, but big business called for something cooler, less pronounced in its emotional appeal, more grown-up. (By the mid-1920s, the proportion of tinted product released by a given studio was a crude but accurate barometer of that outfit’s prestige.)

It’s only natural to assume, then, that the talkie revolution dealt a deathblow to tinting and toning. Certainly the reputed Golden Age of Hollywood is synonymous with “Glorious Black and White”—the marketing moniker devised by Turner Entertainment to sell vintage VHS tapes (and make nice after the company’s ill-fated colorization putsch) in the 1990s.

There were also substantial technical hurdles to tinted and toned talkies. The color processes, which achieved artisanal results on an industrial scale during the silent era, could not be readily translated to the new medium. To produce decent, audible results, a projector’s sound head had to “read” the information on the optical soundtrack. If the addition of a tint altered the contrast of the optical soundtrack, the range and character of the recording would be substantially affected.

The prospect of cutting and assembling every release print must also have sounded daunting to the studios—talkies were bringing in boffo box office, but production costs had increased right alongside receipts. Cinema, once mechanical, was now essentially electronic—with the precision and expense that implies. Many studios, too, were facing capital crunches as overextended gambles (like Fox’s theater-buying spree and its grandiose plot to purchase M-G-M) and simple Depression economics took their toll. Dropping the cumbersome, disreputable headache of tinting and toning would seem like a wise move.

But that’s not exactly what happened. Though tinted and toned talkies have minimal purchase on our collective memories, they were by no means rare. We recently spoke with Anthony L’Abbate, Preservation Officer at George Eastman House and a leading expert on the forgotten process, about this curious historical amnesia.

KW:  I think when most people think of classic Hollywood—especially movies from the 1930s—they tend to think of something strictly black-and-white. Is that supposition wrong?

AL: I think that is a very true statement. Everyone knows that the world was in black and white until Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Even though there were a number of natural color (Technicolor, Multicolor, etc.) films made in the 1930s, they were in much fewer numbers than monochromatic films.

ONE HOUR WITH YOU 007Enthusiasts of classic Hollywood films are 99.9% of the time not seeing original nitrate release prints – they see prints made somewhere between the 1950s and the present day. [Or they see them on home video. -- Ed.] If original nitrate release prints were on pre-tinted stock (Sonochrome) or were chemically toned in the laboratory, the safety copies that were made for reissue or television distribution years later were always black-and-white. Even though color television was introduced in 1954, it was a basically black-and-white medium for over a decade. As television was the main outlet for old films, it just didn’t make sense to spend the extra money to copy the films onto pre-tinted stock or to make new sepia prints. Here’s an example: even as early as 1949 when The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) was first re-issued, the prologue and the epilogue, which were originally sepia toned, were printed onto ordinary black-and-white film.

KW: How widespread were tinted talkies?

AL: It’s difficult to say. Very few original nitrate release prints survive (or survive complete), so a major resource is lost to us today. And the survival rate for original scripts and continuities is nearly as poor. Through my research I have found that tinting and toning was not only used in feature films, but in the entire range of short subjects as well, from live action, fiction shorts to travelogues, cartoons and even newsreels. For just the decade of the 1930s, I know of 70 features and 106 short subjects that were either wholly tinted or toned or featured sequences that were tinted or toned. Some had combinations of tinting and toning. It surprises many people—scholars and film buffs alike—to learn that original release prints of Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) were on green tinted stock, or that the Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races (Sam Wood, 1937) had its two big musical numbers toned: the ballet was toned sepia and the “venetian waters” number was toned blue.

KW:  Was tinting just a hold over from the silent days?

AL: I wouldn’t say the tinting was “just a hold over.” Tinting was an accepted practice of filmmaking in the silent days that audiences expected.  Movie audiences knew the “language” of tinting. There were literal applications, like blue for nighttime scenes or yellow for daylight, but also emotional ones as well, such as red for anger and purple for passion. Just because films had added sound, there was no reason for the practice to end.

KW: I’ve read that tinting was abandoned with the introduction of sound because the process distorted the soundtrack.

AL: It is true that some of the dyes used in the tinting of silent pictures did cause distortion. The solution to this problem was the manufacture of new pre-tinted film stocks with dyes that would not cause distortion on the optical sound track. In 1929 Kodak introduced Sonochrome—sixteen pre-tinted stocks, with colors ranging from pale pastels to deep and vibrant shades.

ONE HOUR WITH YOU 004Film historians and some books on film history have called Sonochrome a horrible failure and very little used. If this were true, Kodak would not have kept producing Sonochrome stocks up through the late 1960s, when they were predominantly used for advertisements and snipes. If Sonochome was a failure and there was no demand, DuPont would not have introduced their own pre-tinted film stocks.

Pre-tinted stocks received a boost in the late 1930s when John M. Nickolaus developed a new sepia toning process at the M-G-M laboratory: Sonochrome stock was used to achieve a two- and sometimes three-color effect. The effect wasn’t limited to M-G-M, either. For example, the Columbia film Arizona (Wesley Ruggles, 1940) used Sonochrome “Firelight” red-tinted stock, which was then toned sepia to produce a two-color effect.

KW: How did you become interested in tinted talkies?

AL: I started really researching this topic in the summer of 2008 when the 1933 Fox Film I Am Suzanne! (Roland V. Lee) was brought to my attention. My colleagues were excited by the fact that it was a tinted talking picture, which we believed to be a rarity. I had only known of a few sound films that had been tinted, so I wanted to see what critics said about the tinting in I Am Suzanne! In all the reviews that I read about the film, none mentioned tinting.

So I went and looked up the reviews for One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932), another film that I knew had tinted sequences. [The tinted version of One Hour With You was issued on laserdisc, though the tints were curiously dropped for the DVD edition -- Ed.] Again nothing was mentioned. That is when I started to put two and two together and realized that if the critics are not mentioning this rare coloring, maybe it wasn’t rare and that tinting didn’t really end with the coming of sound.

KW: What’s your process for researching tinted talkies?

AL: I am fortunate to be working at George Eastman House, where we have access to a sizable collection of nitrate films, so I am able to look at original release prints. I was able to inspect David O. Selznick’s personal print of Bird of Paradise (King Vidor, 1932). While his copy—which was made in the early ’40s—was only in black and white, all the reels had notes like “Candleflame,” “Verdante,” “Firelight,” and “Peachblow” scrawled in the leader, indicating the Sonochrome stock to be used. I have friends and colleagues in every major U.S. archive and they let me know when they come across a tinted / toned sound film.

ONE HOUR WITH YOU 008Cutting continuities, when they survive, have been useful for giving me information about how films looked on their original release. It was from a cutting continuity that I discovered that original release prints of Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930) had been printed on DuPont lavender pre-tinted stock.

I also read lots of contemporary reviews. After M-G-M introduced their toning process in the late 1930s, Variety was usually good at mentioning if a film was toned or tinted. Visiting and revisiting historic newspaper websites will often bring some hits when I search with terms like “sepia tone,” “sepiatone,” “red tinted film,” etc. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. And reviewers were not always consistent in mentioning if a film was artificially colored.

KW: Archivists usually have a few go-to sources for contemporary reviews—the bound collections of Variety and New York Times reviews, which were published for the library market in the 1970s and ’80s. Early trade journals like the Motion Picture World have been available on microfilm for a long time, but there’s so much more out there. So many small town newspapers have been digitized and become searchable. So much data to aggregate.

AL: A “red tinted film” search on a historical newspaper website brought up reviews from Lima, Ohio and Corsicana, Texas, that mentioned that the hell sequence in Dante’s Inferno (Harry Lachman, 1935) was printed on a light red stock. A search for the word “sepia” turned up a 1945 New York Times editorial from a man in Queens who complained that films were no longer sepia toned. (The process stopped towards the end of World War II because uranium—one of the chemicals needed for toning—had been restricted for civilian use by the government, who needed it for the atomic bomb.) He also mentioned how impressive the toning was in films like The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell, 1937). That was the first that I heard that Zenda was toned. Reviews confirmed that it was released with sepia sequences. We have some reels of the film in collection at the Eastman House, so I was able to see the toning first hand.

KW: If modern audiences want to see the effect for themselves, which restored films would you recommend?

AL: Hell’s Angels (1930, Howard Hughes) has tinting, a tinted and toned sequence, and even a two-color Technicolor sequence. Mighty Joe Young (Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1949). Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) has tinting, toning, and some Technicolor. Those would be my top three picks, chosen for ease of availability on home video.

KW: Of course, there are still many, many films missing their original tints and tones. Any in particular that you’d like to see restored?

35mm-tinted-profileAL: My list would begin with the 1937 Eddie Cantor film Ali Baba Goes to Town (David Butler). This was one of two films that used a three-color tinting-toning combination of Sepia-Amber-Copper for daytime scenes and Blue-Orange-Copper for night scenes. Likewise The Firefly (Robert Z. Leonard, 1937) used Sepia-Blue, Sepia-Orange and Sepia-Blue-Pink. These two films used the process to its limit; no other films were so ambitiously colored. I would also loved to see the light red tint restored to Dante’s Inferno. But to be honest I would love to see all the films that had tinting and toning restored.

KW: Obviously, this is something that goes well beyond trivia for you. Does the tinting and toning enhance the emotional or aesthetic experience for audiences? What makes tinting worth talking about?

AL: I think tinting and toning would enhance the emotional experience. Think of what it would be like to see Dracula in a darkened theater with a green tint to add to the creepiness. I know it definitely enhances the aesthetic experience. I just saw a sepia 35mm print of Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943). Having only seen the film on DVD in a black-and-white copy, it did not really hold my attention. Seeing it on the screen in a sparkling, sepia toned print, it sprang to life in a way in which I was not expecting. I sat in the back of the theater in an aisle seat, thinking I would leave after the first reel. I left the theater after the end credit faded from the screen.

Now I’m a bit biased on the subject, but I think it is worthwhile to talk about tinting and toning in the sound era, because it is so forgotten. And the more people are educated on the subject, the more that these films will be restored to their original appearance. And possibly more information will be uncovered leading to further discoveries on this topic.


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