Why Film Prints Still Matter

An unused shot from my first 16mm short film from film school. So many years ago.

An unused shot from my first 16mm short film from film school. So many years ago.

The term “film is dead” has been going around the last few years. Not sure why we are so quick to end a format. There are people who still collect VHS tapes to this day. Why is film, which has been around longer than any of you reading this have been alive, is dead? It isn’t nor should it be.

As a filmmaker I love using the latest technology to make what I do. In that case I am all for the latest digital cameras and formats. I know some filmmakers still prefer to shoot on film. I think it should be there for them to use. For me, I admit, I’m on the digital bandwagon. The tools better suite my creative needs. However, as a film buff I love watching 35mm film prints.

Am I contradicting myself? No. Here is why.

When it comes to more recent films, most of which are shot digitally, then showing them in 4K digital projection makes sense. Older films that have been restored and can be shown in 4K digital I am also all for. I have seen a few older films digitally and they look stunning. While expensive for the digital projectors to be installed into a theatre it is cheaper in the long run to show films. You receive a digital file of the film that can be shown and no matter how many times it is shown it retains the same quality that it is intended to be seen as. It keeps the integrity of the film intact. And most of the time this is what is needed.

We are years away (if even ever) from every film being scanned and restored to be shown in a digital theatre. Therefore, their only existing way of being shown is from an existing 35mm print. I think studios claiming they are no longer making prints available for theatres is ridiculous. There should be an existing example of how the film was originally shown available as an option if theatres have the option to show it. Do they need 3,000 prints of a film? No. But I think when they restore a film why not just make a new print that can be rented out? Or keep some release prints available.

There is something amazing about watching an older film in a movie theatre with an audience from a print that you know was shown when the film was released. There is something so special about that experience. Knowing that the flickering image in front of you is the exact same one audiences saw at the time the film was released. Sometimes the more obscure the film the more special the experience.

I go to a lot of film events where older films are shown. Especially older horror and science fiction films. Many that barely got seen during their original run but gained a fan base over the years through video but now the film gets its proper due. Just this past weekend I got the chance to see several films in 35mm on the big screen. The prints were a little beat up. Slightly faded. One of them reddish. One of my favorite animated films, Akira, Night Of The Living Dead (in a print that is older than I am!), plus one of my all time favorite films, Escape From New York, to name a few. The prints gave them an extra life. I have these films at home on Blu-ray or DVD with very pristine presentations. However, to watch the films in a theatre I wanted to see see a print. I have been lucky enough to see Night Of The Living Dead on the big screen before. I think two of those times were the same print. It is beat up and it jumps in spots where the film probably broke and spliced back together by a projectionist. Akira I had never seen on the big screen before and seeing it in a print brought out the colors of the animation. Escape From New York was pretty much red because the print was faded. I didn’t care. I loved ever single second of it. I shared something with not only the people in the theatre but people I have never met. People who saw the film for the very first time in 1968, with Night Of The Living Dead, 1989, with Akira, and 1981, with Escape From New York. There is something perfect in the non-perfect presentation because of the history. This was the way they were intended to be seen at the time of their release. And that is what is being celebrated. The history of these films. They’ve earned that.

Never discount anything. We are a very nostalgic being. At some point we want things that remind us of our childhood or of years long ago whether it was times we lived or not. I know so many music lovers that still collect LP’s. Do the little pops from the record player take away from the music? No. It makes it more real. Is it better than a CD or digital download? No. It’s just more akin to how it was intended to be heard at the time. I mentioned people who collect VHS tapes, or Laserdiscs, or even myself with my poster collection. Most of my posters are from what I remember seeing hanging in the lobby of the movie theatre as a kid. I’m a stickler for original posters because they have that history associated with them. How many people saw this poster or ones like it? Did it spark their imagination like it did mine? I recently found some old VHS tapes I had when I was a kid. It brought back so many memories. If I’m going to watch the film now I’ll pop in the Blu-ray but nothing has the history, at least for me, as that VHS does.

Don’t take away film prints. They are just as much a part of history as the films themselves. Do I love my pristine Blu-ray’s? Absolutely. But sometimes I need that old beat up print I can watch in a theatre that takes me to the main reason I fell in love with movies in the first place, the magic. The pure magic of the movies. A shared human experience. There is enough room in the movie world for fans for both digital and 35mm prints. Film isn’t dead. It’s now a part of history. Let’s not have it be extinct history.

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