David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Film Art

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies
by David Bordwell
237 pages, 5 × 7 inches.


For background on Pandora’s Digital Box, see this blog entry, and read below on this page.

“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 questions:

  • How did digital projection get on the agenda?
  • What roles did George Lucas, James Cameron, and others play in promoting and advancing the technology?
  • How 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?
  • With 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 film culture?

Written by David Bordwell, an award-winning teacher and researcher, Pandora’s 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
Introduction: Changeover
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
Conclusion: Churn
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:

“David 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 these questions.”

—Catherine Grant, Film 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 available today.”

—Jonathan Poritsky, The Candler Blog

“A fantastic and thought-provoking series.”

Kine Bi-Weekly

“An essential series on the transition to digital projection—anyone 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.”

Roger Ebert

David Bordwell
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