According to Deadline Hollywood, distributors will no longer make movies on film available to theatres in North America by the end of 2013. International theatres will be done with film by the end of 2015. It's all going to be digital.
I fully understand the economics behind this move. Film prints are expensive to make, expensive to ship and easily damaged when projected. They contain silver, a substance whose cost varies widely due to market forces. Digital prints can be made faster, the drives that hold them are reusable and they shouldn't degrade over multiple showings. They won't need splicing.
Still, for anyone who has handled film, it's a sad moment. There was something magical about being able to hold a ribbon of celluloid up to the light and see the images. Seeing the squiggle of the optical soundtrack and knowing that the squiggle could be turned into an orchestra or an actor's voice was amazing. Comparing the sides, one the celluloid base and the other the emulsion, said something about the film's manufacture. The knowledge of edge numbers, negative and reversal, hi-con and panchromatic, internegs and interpositives, workprints and release prints, will vanish with film.
The artifacts of film are what we accept as the look of movies. Film grain is an imperfection, yet we take it as normal. Observant people notice the marks in the upper right corner to signal reel changes to the projectionist. (Those marks have disappeared in recent years due to improvements in projectors).
It is because projectors used to be mechanical that sprocket holes, one of the most common graphic identifiers of movies, exist and why all movies were projected at the same rate.
The new digital systems are not restricted to 24 frames per second. Peter Jackson will release The Hobbit at 48 fps. James Cameron will release the Avatar sequel at 60 fps. Some people are wondering if these films won't look like soap operas or sitcoms shot on video.
Finally, think how this will affect Tex Avery's cartoons. Old cartoons already labour under handicaps because their contemporary references aren't known to modern audiences. Voices that imitate radio performers or gags spoofing hit films of the past don't register. Avery, in particular, loved to riff on the nature of film itself. The wolf runs past the sprocket holes in Dumb Hounded.
Two hunters cross a boundary where Technicolor ends in Lucky Ducky.
A singer pauses to pluck a hair from the film gate in Magical Maestro.
It's only a matter of time before these gags will mystify audiences instead of making them laugh.
The world moves on. Some future Tex Avery will probably do gags about file formats. Films will soon have the same status as cylinder recordings; only specialists will know what they're looking at and have the equipment to play them. I'm going to miss film.