There was a point in time – for a long time – where every movie played in cinemas was played on physical film. In fact, it was several reels of film, spliced together and operated by a professional projectionist.
It was almost an art-form to deliver a seamless movie-viewing experience.
And during that Golden and Silver age of cinema, movies were shipped in film reels across the country – even the globe. This made going to the movies so much more of a special event because it was harder and more time intensive for theaters to get their hands on physical reels for the latest releases.
But times have changed, drastically, and the cost and convenience to switch to digital has had a surmounting persuasion on the types of formats that cinemas play today. And it all begs the question: are actual film reels still being used?
Multiplexes vs local theaters
The biggest disparity of film reel vs digital copy can be seen within your average cinemas. Sure, certain megaplexes probably have a very small percentage of theaters equipped with projectors for film reels, but the majority of their movie houses are going to be digital to keep up with today’s trend. It’s a combination of added expense and a playback skillset that they’re no longer looking to invest money and time into.
Conversely, smaller theaters (you know those adorable, local gems), may still operate on a more traditional film-based format. But, even the smallest theaters are likely to run digital by now – via either physical disk, satellite technology or internet download. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 95% of the world’s cinemas are digital after Hollywood made a push to standardize the technology in the early 2000s. And the cinemas that may still use film reels are most likely 35mm projectors – to show earlier movie releases that haven’t been digitized yet.
Speaking of 35mm...
While most production companies and directors have transitioned to the digital route, there are certain acclaimed directors that have an unwavering allegiance for the old reel formats, particularly Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan.
It’s well documented that Tarantino is a strong advocate for physical film, even going as far as stating that “digital projection is the death of cinema as we know it.” As one of Hollywood’s most elite directors, his distaste for digital has led him to stay true to shooting his movies on 35mm film (as well as digital to satisfy the new norm). His latest Oscar-buzzing work, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, is a clear indication to his continued fight for film.
And while Christopher Nolan might not share the exact same hatred that Tarantino does for digital, the renowned director of blockbusters like Interstellar and Dunkirk (the later shot entirely on 65mm film) has said, “there’s nothing quite like filming a movie on film.” He’s even gone as far as to slam Netflix’s approach to digital movie making … so maybe he actually is on Tarantino’s level.
Don’t call it a comeback
Add physical film to the latest list of hipster trends (totally meant in a good way) of what was old is new again. While digital may be the new standard, many new filmmakers and a few established ones are trying to revive the physical film format with popular releases like BlacKkKlansman (which combined both 16mm and 35mm – even ektachrome film), Christopher Robin, A Quiet Place, Fury and Bad Times at the El Royale – just to name a few. Even huge special effects movies like Ready Player One incorporated a mix of 35mm film for the “real world” sequences and digital for the VR segments.
And let’s not forget about the growing adoption of physical film for personal use. Whether it’s an art project or an amatuer film, many directors and cinematographers are turning back to physical film formats for their warmer and more welcoming color palette and textures.
So, is film dead? Nope. And it won’t go quietly as long as some of Hollywood's premier directors have anything to say about it.