Rewinding 2011: The Death of "Film"

December 27, 2011
A thought by James Berardinelli

Many times when writing a year-end summary, it's easy to spot the "big" story of the year. On the surface, that's not the case with 2011. By all accounts, at least based on the movies that made it to the screens, this was a very ordinary year, made better than 2010 by a smidgen as a result of a strong year-end push. In 2011, there was no Avatar threatening to break box office records, no The Dark Knight redefining what a superhero movie could be, no Return of the King reminding us that special effects no longer limit a director's vision. Sure, Harry Potter's cinematic journey ended, but the only ones who cared are those who were with him for the entire voyage. (The Deathly Hallows Part 2 did not sell substantially more tickets than its predecessors, although the 3-D surcharge boosted the gross box office receipts substantially.) And Twilight continued on its way although, like Mr. Potter, it spoke only to converts. Overall - kind of a boring year. Or was it?

Look deeper, my friend. Look beyond the images on the screen to how those images are now being presented.

2011 is the year in which film died. That's not a qualitative comment; it's an objective analysis. By using the term "film," I'm referring to the medium - the celluloid, the means by which the moving images are conveyed to theaters for projection to audiences. Film has been dying for years now. Like a patient afflicted with a terminal wasting disease, it has been gradually withering for the better part of a decade. When you think of home photography - still images and home movies - it has been years since non-digital cameras have been commonly sold to anyone but "old school" buffs. Today, all the popular cameras capture images digitally. The trend is so pervasive that it is increasingly difficult to buy film and find a quick, convenient place to have it developed. Polaroid is out of business and Kodak has "diversified." Old-style cameras are now the purview of E-bay and specialty stores.

So it is for movies. The concept of committing something to 35 mm and shipping it around the country in multiple reels - the standard means of distribution as recently as three or four years ago - has gone by the wayside. For studios, this is a huge cost-cutting boon. It takes tens of thousands of dollars to strike and ship each print. With digital, that revenue-restricting element has been eliminated. Security is also better, since the digital copies are encrypted and less likely to be intercepted and duplicated between source and destination.

Hollywood has been on the digital bandwagon for years now, but the most aggressive push away from 35mm occurred this year. It has gone from being on the endangered species list on January 1, 2011 to being virtually extinct by December 31. Many studios have announced their intention to no longer distribute on film next year and have warned theaters lacking digital projectors of this. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss, and this one has come up to an unstoppable speed over the course of a year. If you had asked the "experts" in December 2010 when digital would finally eradicate analog, they would have replied "within 3-5 years." Now, twelve months later, it's done. Most of the movies you're seeing - especially in multiplexes and megaplexes - are digital.

Going into 2011, one of the closest megaplexes to my house had converted 4 of its 16 auditoriums to digital. Over the course of one hectic spring weekend, they changed the other 12. By the time the big summer movies arrived, they were all-digital, all-the-time. According to the general manager, he retained two operational 35mm projectors as a failsafe, but he never expected to use them. As of Christmas, he hasn't, and they will likely be "retired" in 2012. He also indicated that every title he wanted, including some obscure indies and foreign-language features, was available in digital.

In the early years of digital, there were considerable concerns about image quality. I remember the battle lines - digital proponents arguing that images were brighter, more colorful, and generally more alive, while the "old school" film lovers bemoaned the soullessness of the medium - how it made everything look like a giant TV show projected on a movie screen. We have come a long way since then. Digital has improved to the point where it almost perfectly replicates film. I no longer go into a theater wondering if I'm going to see something on 35mm of digital, because it really doesn't matter. And there are tangible benefits to seeing something in digital. Unless someone has really screwed up the hardware, it will never be out of focus, will never be interrupted by film breaking, and will never be out of frame. Also, there's no chance of missing reels, reels being spliced together in the wrong order, and reels being spliced in upside down (I have experienced all these things more than once in the 20 years since I started reviewing). The downside is that if there is a problem, it won't be fixed quickly or easily. Corrupt hard drives seem to be the biggest culprit behind aborted showings.

I was never against the migration to digital. It must have something to do with my tech background, but I always saw this as the sane way to go, if only from a preservation standpoint. One need no longer worry about a movie being lost because the negative was destroyed. Think of all the thousands of early films that will never again be seen because they have fallen victim to neglect, something that need never happen again. Computer memory is cheap. Anything and everything can be stored. And one doesn't have to worry about keeping negatives in expensive, temperature-controlled vaults in order to preserve them.

In 2011, the industry as a whole cast aside any lingering doubts about digital and embraced it fully - from the studios to the theaters to the most staunch "old school" critics. Even Roger Ebert, while still mourning the loss of 35mm as a viable format, has grudgingly admitted that he can't always tell the difference anymore. I can understand the romanticism associated with celluloid, but we have moved on.

One could argue that digital has its dark side in 3-D. Without digital projectors, after all, the current means of 3-D (circular polarization for Real3D and linear polarization for IMAX 3-D) would not be possible. Many theaters adopted digital because of 3-D, mistaking it for a cash cow. Finally, however, after a few years of uncertainty, the future of 3-D is becoming clearer. It will not go away, but neither will it be as aggressively pursued as it was in Avatar's wake. In 2011, consumers revolted against 3-D - not all 3-D, to be sure, but against the massive push by the studios to release too much product in a format in which too few people were interested. Only a select few films met or exceeded box office expectations in 3-D. Many of the "lesser" titles were seen by more people in 2-D than in 3-D.

3-D's main problem, as became evident in 2011, was overexposure. When it was new, sparkling, and uncommon, movie-goers flocked to 3-D presentations. The newness was the enticement, and quality issues were of little import. Viewers were happy to pay the surcharge. This led to the killing of the goose that laid the golden egg. The 3-D explosion took away the uniqueness that made it special in the first place. Viewers, recognizing they weren't getting their money's worth with a series of quickie post-production conversions, opted for the less expensive 2-D option. If there was a lesson to be learned in the 3-D arena in 2011, it was that people will pay for a "special" 3-D experience but not for an "ordinary" one. Less is more - the question is whether the studios, not known for restraint, will be able to curb their desire going forward to transform every mainstream action/comedy/animated/horror film into 3-D.

The best use of 3-D to date - arguably even more impressive than Avatar - was Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a late 2011 entry. In making this movie, Scorsese meticulously crafted the 3-D, according it the same level of respect he shows to any filmmaking tool. To him, it wasn't a gimmick or a way to sell more expensive tickets. Once he decided to use 3-D, he invested himself in it, and the result is evident. 3-D doesn't work as an add-on or an afterthought. It must be incorporated into the production's DNA from the beginning if it is going to succeed. Anything less, and it will end up like the legions of mid-summer 3-D would-be blockbusters that audiences rejected in favor of their more satisfying 2-D counterparts.

Still, despite the shift in what we're seeing when we see movies, most pundits will see 2011 as the year when the masses showed signs of weariness with Hollywood's relentless pursuit of formula entertainment. So many movies underperformed that it's impossible to list them all in the space I have available. The aggregate gross for 2011 is down about 4% from 2010 and 3% from 2009 (the first year surcharges began making a significant impact on the average price per ticket). The number of tickets sold - a more reliable indicator of multiplex health - is more alarming. The 2011 totals will finish about 75,000,000 behind 2010 and 150,000,000 behind 2009. In fact, one has to go back to the early '90s to find a time of fewer annual ticket sales than 2011 - an era when the # of screens was about 60% of what it is today. 2011 had zero movies exceeding $400M in domestic gross, two exceeding $300M, and four between $200M and $300M (six total >$200M). The majority of the superhero/comic book and animated films fell short of the $200M level that is used to define a "blockbuster." By comparison, 2010 had one $400M+ film, three between $300M and $400M, and six between $200M and $300M (ten total>$200M). The 2010 blockbuster field was cluttered with superhero and especially animated entries. Going back one year earlier, to 2009, the studios could claim two $400M+ movies (one of which made $750M), one between $300M and $400M, and seven between $200M and $300M (ten total >$200M).

The lesson, if there is one, is that audience tastes are changing and Hollywood isn't keeping up with them. 2012 looks to be chock-full of "desirable" movies - Peter Jackson return to Middle Earth, 007 back in the saddle, a bevy of Marvel superheroes getting together for a gang-bang, Nolan's final ride on Batman's wings, and so forth... After two down years, the studios and theaters need a bounce-back. If 2012 doesn't provide it, it's time to wonder whether we have entered an era of contraction. Maybe the future isn't just digital. Maybe it's something more radical.

A year from now, we'll know.