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If you were at the AFI this weekend to catch Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, you were witness to a dying bit of cinema history.
It’s not the 70mm film format that Anderson used to shoot his “Scientology movie”; given that The Master is the first narrative feature shot in that large, gloriously detailed format in more than a decade-and-a-half, that choice was a fleeting resurrection of the already dead. Rather, the patient on life support is the quickly disappearing practice of shining light through pieces of celluloid, as D.C.’s film projectors—-like those nationwide—-quickly disappear from projection booths.
The latest casualty to the binary-booted march of progress: Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row theaters, both of which went “all-digital” on Sept. 7.
Converting to digital projection is hardly new among chain cinemas. If you’ve been to a multiplex any time in the past year or two, chances are slim that you watched a film print. Landmark is a smaller chain, operating just 53 cinemas nationwide, and focusing on new independent releases. E Street shows a wide range of older films, too, from the cult classics that play at midnight on weekends, to the old favorites that play midnights and Sunday mornings as part of the “Capital Classics” series. Landmark’s smaller size, its aesthetic overlap with independent art houses, and its commitment to film history make their complete abandonment of film sting just a little more.
There are plenty of perfectly valid logistical reasons for the switch, and it’s hard to argue with the economics of digital distribution. (For distributors anyway; hundreds of small independent theaters that can’t afford the upgrade are facing their deaths as studios phase out film distribution.) Striking a single print of a new movie can cost more than $2,000, so the savings for big studios on a widely distributed film can be in the millions. For the smaller independent distributors that provide much of E Street and Bethesda’s content, the savings on their more modest distribution runs are still significant, and theoretically make it possible for them to release a greater diversity of movies. That’s a win for everyone, right?
I like to think of that as the silver lining, but watching that lush 70mm print of The Master, it’s easy to forget the business side. Aesthetically, we’re enjoying the upside at the expense of a big, grand silver screen. The incredible detail in the full 70mm print of that movie is a reminder that digital images are brick-by-brick reconstructions, while there’s a good reason the word “analog” is applied to film. As such, it’s nice that Anderson’s film coincides with Landmark’s inevitable acquiescence to progress: Trading film for digital is long since a foregone conclusion, but as that trade becomes more complete, it’s important to remember what we’re losing in the bargain.