Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future
by David Bordwell
237 pages, 7 × 5 inches.
For background on Pandora’s Digital Box,
blog entry, and read below on this page.
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“It was the biggest upheaval
in film exhibition since synchronized sound. Between 2010 and 2012, the world’s
film industries forever
changed the way movies were shown.”
This is the opening sentence of Pandora’s Digital
Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies. Written in lively and accessible
language, it tells the story of how the recent revolution in film projection
came about. It also situates the digital change in the history of American film
distribution and moviegoing.
Pandora’s Digital Box answers these
- How did digital projection get on the agenda?
- What roles did George Lucas,
James Cameron, and others play in promoting and advancing the technology?
did the Hollywood studios/distributors take charge of the process and turn it
to their advantage?
- What was the role of 3D in fulfilling the digital agenda?
- How does the shift
to digital projection fit into theatres’ strategies
to solidify and expand the audience?
- How does digital conversion affect small-town
theatres? Art and repertory theatres? Film archives and the future of film preservation?
filmmaking and now film projection becoming extensions of Information Technology,
what sorts of changes might we expect to come? Will digital exhibition expand
viewers’ choice or reinforce the Hollywood industry’s hold on commercial
Written by David Bordwell, an award-winning teacher and
Digital Box provides both a snapshot of the changes taking place at this
moment and a long-term history of American film culture.
The book is derived from
a series of weblog entries on davidbordwell.net. For the book, the original
website entries have been rewritten, merged, and updated. The author has gone
beyond the entries to provide deeper and wider financial and historical background,
adding some 22,000 words of new material. The result now reads as an independent,
coherent study of the digital transition. A final section of references provides
weblinks to important documents, sites, and commentary.
Table of Contents
Acronyms for a New Age
1 | The Last Redoubt
2 | From E-Cinema to D-Cinema
3 | King of the World
4 | Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain! (He’s Not There Anyway)
5 | The Road to Harmony
6 | Art House, Smart House
7 | Pandora at the Festival
8 | The Artworks Formerly Known as Prints
References and Further Reading
Excerpt from the introduction:
Historically, most major film technology has been introduced in the production sector and resisted in the exhibition sector. Exhibitors have been right to be conservative. Any tinkering with their business, especially if it involves massive conversion of equipment and auditoriums, can be costly. If the technology doesn’t catch on, as 3D didn’t in the 1950s, millions of dollars can be wasted.
Shooting on digital media posed no threat to theatres as long the finished films were converted to 35mm prints for screening. But distribution has long been the most powerful and profitable sector of the film industry. Today’s major film companies—Warners, Paramount, Sony et al.—dominate the market through distribution. So when the Majors established the Digital Cinema Initiatives standards, exhibitors had to adjust.
Synchronized sound reproduction took about five years to transform most national cinemas, but the digital switchover has come more slowly. In December 2000 the world had about 164,000 screens. Only thirty of them were digital. Five years later 848 were. At the end of 2010, however, 36,103 screens were digital—about thirty percent of the total. In North America, the jump was dramatic, from about 330 digital screens at the end of 2005 to over 16,000 at the end of 2010.
2011 iced the cake. In the United Kingdom, eighty percent of titles released that year were on digital formats. At the annual Cannes Film Festival there were a great many digital screenings, even of films shot in 35mm. In Belgium the two major theatre chains, Kinepolis and UGC, went wholly digital. In Norway all 420 commercial screens were converted, partly because the government funded the change.
In America, the word went forth from John Fithian, the plain-spoken President of the National Association of Theatre Owners. He said in March of 2011:
Based on our assessment of the roll-out schedule and our conversations with our distribution partners, I believe that film prints could be unavailable as early as the end of 2013. Simply put, if you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.
Twentieth Century Fox took the lead in declaring that at the end of 2012 it would circulate no more film prints, including titles handled by its art-house subsidiary Searchlight.
Exhibitors reacted fast. In my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, the dominant chain went digital just before Labor Day 2011 and, with ironic timing, fired its projectionists. Hundreds of U.S. theatres junked nearly all their 35mm equipment, saving only a projector or two for the occasional film print. By the end of the year, about 26,000 of America’s screens were digital—two-thirds of the total.
We have passed the tipping point. By early 2012, over half of the 137,000 screens in the world had converted. The hundreds of new multiplexes opening in China, at the rate of eight screens per day, do not contain reels, splicers, or a scrap of photographic film. “Some time in 2013,” says a spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners, “all the [U.S.] screens will be digital.” By 2015, predicts IHS Screen Digest, 35mm projection will be defunct in commercial cinemas.
As someone who studies film history, I’ve long wished to travel back to witness major changes in the medium I love. I wasn’t alive when exhibitors migrated from storefronts to dedicated venues in the 1910s, or when they wired silent-movie venues for talkies. I was alive, but not especially sentient, when theatres converted to widescreen in the early 1950s. Deprived of a time machine, I’ve longed for on-the-ground reports of what these moments were like. From our vantage point we can study these developments at the macro-level, but witnesses at the moment left us few records of the pulse of change. Working at a distance, we gain perspective and can see connections not apparent to participants; but our distance denies us access to the texture and oscillations of the process as it moved from day to day, month to month.
My goal in this little book is to have my cake and eat it too. I hope that my experience studying film history helps me spot some broad-scale trends at work in today’s shift from film prints to digital files. What forces brought it about? What does the change tell us about the business of making and showing movies? What are the effects, both immediate and long-term, of the conversion? How does it change our experience of movies and moviegoing? Full measure of the changeover will have to await a more judicious and detached view, but I want to offer some first quick sketches of how it happened, with some hunches about why.
Because I’m working from early, sometimes contradictory information, it’s likely that I’ll make some errors of fact, inference, and judgment. Future historians will need to add to and subtract from my account. In the meantime, I hope to capture a sense of immediacy. The process of digital conversion has wriggled and twisted in my grasp, so this book is as much an account of a wrestling match as a record of research. I’d be happy to win two falls out of three.
The most tempting parallel is with the changeover to sound cinema during the 1930s, a wholesale revamping of movie theatres around the world. The comparison is fair up to a point. But the digital revolution in our theatres has been a muffled one. Talkies were markedly, triumphantly different from the silent cinema that they replaced. Everybody noticed that. Today, most moviegoers wouldn’t be aware that they were no longer seeing film prints in their local multiplex. Few would care.
So we have to peer behind the scenes. If we do, we find striking changes. During a severe economic depression, U.S. companies invested a sum estimated at over two billion dollars in digital projection equipment. In the space of a few years, tens of thousands of film projectors, many brand-new, were thrown out as scrap. Thousands of projectionists were fired or reassigned to maintenance tasks. Longer-range, we may expect thousands of screens to close because owners can’t afford the cost of conversion. The digital conversion has strengthened Hollywood’s major companies and the biggest theatre chains, but it has threatened independent distributors and small theatres. Indeed, every area of film culture, from multiplex and art-houses to film festivals and archives, is being profoundly altered.
The change isn’t simply a matter of new technology, or hardware turning into software. It isn’t simply a matter of fancy gear or even the look and sound of images. It involves social processes, the way institutions like filmmaking and film exhibition work. Technology affects relations of power, along with the choices that moviemakers and filmgoers are offered. As films become files, cinema changes in subtle, far-reaching ways. People may not have noticed the difference between a 35mm image and a digital one, but as moviegoing becomes different, so does our sense of what films are, and have been.
This little book is a first attempt to chart how all that has happened, and to suggest what may lie ahead.
Of the original
blog series, which remains available online, commentators have written:
Bordwell's recent and hugely important online series of studies of the transition
to digital cinematic projection may be found at his and Kristin Thompson’s peerless
film studies website Observations on Film Art. Not
only are these unmissable discussions in their own right but they make themselves
even more indispensable by linking to numerous further essential resources on
Studies for Free
“An awe-inspiring, in-depth series.”
—Jim Emerson, Scanners
“David Bordwell’s growing series on the move
from 35mm film to digital projection is absolutely stellar reading.… Bordwell
offers the clearest, most extensive account of the state of the digital transition
—Jonathan Poritsky, The
“A fantastic and thought-provoking series.”
“An essential series on the transition to digital
with the slightest interest in making or watching movies should be reading these.”
—Illuminations: Essential Media about the Arts
On the JEM Theatre chapter: “This is the story of how a movie theater
has struggled and survived over the decades, and been nurtured by a series of
owners. At a time when towns like Harmony, Minnesota (pop. 1,000) are dying,
local people came to see the JEM theater as a symbol of their community. As David
Bordwell's prose, so eloquent, so straightforward, relates this story, you may
find tears in your eyes.”