Swimming Upstream: Christopher Nolan taking a stand for traditional filmWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Movie theater owners should love Christopher Nolan. When a film director’s resume includes a total box office gross of over $1.6 billion in domestic ticket sales alone — including one of the most successful movie trilogies of all time in his “Dark Knight” saga — one would imagine the people who deliver those films to the public would be prepared to do anything for him. Add in that his upcoming movie “Interstellar” is one of the most anticipated flicks of the fall season, and you’d expect that the people who run the theaters would do anything to have the chance to show the film a bit early.
Indeed, many of them are jumping through hoops to garner such a chance — though they are hoops placed by the director for a purpose. Nolan has long been an advocate for shooting and screening movies on good, old-fashioned film stock, the way Hollywood always did things until the digital conversion took hold a few years ago. To make his point, he is releasing “Interstellar” — a sci-fi epic starring Matthew McConaughey — on November 5 only to theaters that will screen the movie on 35mm or 70mm film, or on IMAX screens with film projectors. A wider release to the vast majority of screens which have converted to digital projection will follow on November 7, two days later.
Response from the theater owners has been predictably annoyed at the experiment. The Hollywood Reporter stated that around 277 theaters nationwide are participating in the exhibition, and many chains are bringing their old film projectors out of storage just for the event. (As of this writing, no theaters in the Toledo area will be showing “Interstellar” early.) But after years of spending to upgrade to digital projection — mostly at Hollywood’s behest — theater chain owners are not exactly pleased.
“This devalues what we’ve done,” Joe Paletta, a theater owner out of Georgia, said in the THR story. “I can’t afford to get the projectors out of the warehouse for two days, and I don’t have anyone to operate them.”
Nolan is clearly swimming against the Hollywood current in his stand for traditional exhibition. He one of the last handful of filmmakers who insists upon shooting on film stock. In 2012, he held an exhibition of scenes from “The Dark Knight Rises” for fellow directors, which was basically an excuse for him to campaign directly to them about not abandoning the old ways.
“For the last 10 years, I’ve felt increasing pressure to stop shooting film and start shooting video, but I’ve never understood why,” Nolan said in an interview with the Director’s Guild of America. “It’s cheaper to work on film, it’s far better looking, it’s the technology that’s been known and understood for a hundred years, and it’s extremely reliable.”
As I am not a filmmaker, I cannot speak to the first of Nolan’s beliefs — that film is cheaper to shoot with than digital — though I have heard many stories from the new generation of filmmakers about how the digital revolution has been a godsend in terms of making movies on a tight budget. It’s clear that the digital conversion is far less expensive for distributors, though, as Nolan acknowledged in the same DGA interview — whereas films can only be physically transported, a digital file can either be shipped or downloaded via satellite, giving distributors remarkable flexibility.
As for looking far better, well, that really is a matter of opinion. When I hear a movie buff loudly proclaim how film projection is so much better than digital, I can’t help but think of music fans who insist how vinyl is demonstrably better than CD or digital files. You may honestly think that, but when I listen to vinyl all I can hear are the pops, skips and scratches that were so commonplace in the era. To me, CDs and digital files have made the art form far, far more consistent in quality.
I think most movie fans considering the digital revolution would reach a comparable conclusion, or at least find the difference negligible. Film was far from the reliable art form Nolan paints it as, at least on the distribution level. A pain in the ass to work with, easily dirtied and scratched, prone to breakages and, oh yeah, highly flammable to boot. And I doubt the average audience member has even noticed the change from one format to the other in recent years — the supposedly obvious difference in visual quality simply is not as pronounced as film’s advocates would argue. Proponents are ascribing it characteristics that just don’t bear themselves out in real world circumstances — without nostalgia coloring the memory, that is.
In fighting for film, Nolan is making an admirable stand for what he believes is an important tradition in his art form. But I’d argue he’s already making a stand for his art by simply doing what he’s been doing for over a decade now: Making great, original movies that people want to see. Grand storytelling projected on a big screen — that’s the kind of work that will keep true cinema alive. How the images got there isn’t nearly as important as the tale that they tell.