Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 5, 2012

Digital technology killing off movies shown on film


TRAVERSE CITY — If there were any questions that digital filmmaking technology now is the medium of cinema, Michael Moore laid them to rest at a Traverse City Film Festival panel discussion.

"Only four of this year's film festival movies are on film," said the filmmaker, festival founder and vocal proponent of celluloid. And many older films, like Moore's 1989 documentary "Roger and Me" already are no longer available on film.

"You're going to have this whole swath of films that will be unavailable to you," he said.

Moore debated the merits of film versus digital with festival guests and crew at the Saturday panel called "Film is Dead."

Digital technology makes it possible for people of all incomes and abilities to become moviemakers and to share and discuss their movies with others in new ways, the panelists agreed.

"It's moved from an autocratic art to a democratic art," said Mark Cousins, an Irish moviemaker and critic, and director of the 15-hour television series "The Story of Film: An Odyssey." Parts 9-15 of the series will be shown today beginning at 9 a.m. at the Dutmers Theater.

But more people making movies could mean too many movies — lots of them bad, said Bill Hill, a projectionist for the Traverse City Film Festival and others on the film festival circuit.

"Sundance (Film Festival) gets 8,000 admissions," Hill said. "It seems like some of the art of filmmaking is being lost because everyone is a filmmaker."

Digital technology also forces theaters to install expensive digital equipment many can't afford, some said. Hollywood is phasing out 35 mm film for digital movies, and some estimates are that movies made on film will end by 2013.

At a cost of $60,000-$75,000 per screen, converting to digital could put smaller "mom-and-pop" theaters out of business, Moore said.

Panelists questioned how digital movies would be preserved and shown in the future, especially as technology evolves.

"Celluloid lasts 100 years. Who knows how long this digital stuff will last," said Moore, who told of effectively losing precious family photos stored on computer floppy disks when floppy disk drives became obsolete.

But panelists disagreed on whether the art of cinema is negatively affected by digital technology.

"It's a completely different experience watching film and watching digital," said Hill, comparing both versions of Roy Rogers movies. "If something was originally made on film it should be experienced on film."

Cousins, who has made both digital movies and films, said moviemaking is moviemaking, regardless of the medium.

"The shot, frame, aesthetic, moment, matters just as much whether it's film or digital," he said. "If anything, digital has made it more real."

Cousins calls this is a time of "plenitude" and said there has never been a better time to be a cinephile. And it's largely due to digital technology, he said.

But Chapin Cutler, co-founder of film festival circuit favorite Boston Light & Sound, said the ability of digital films to be manipulated by inexperienced theater staff could mean films that won't end up looking anything like their directors intended.

Alex Karpovsky, director of "Red Flag," also has acted in 25 movies, only three of them in film. He said the tone on digital sets is looser and allows for more improvisation than on film sets because digital is less expensive to shoot.

Ultimately digital filmmaking technology is just another moviemaking tool, said Christopher Kenneally, director of the documentary "Side By Side," which explores the topic.

"If you have a great story, tell it — and people will see it," Kenneally said.