We are leaving behind an era of destruction: the massive destruction of projection tools, the radical destruction of what remained of the photochemical industry, the destruction of professions and crafts. Within less than a decade, the technical conversion of world’s cinema to the digital era has been enacted. It has profoundly transformed the economy of cinema, its industry and the terms of its commercial distribution.
Today, this situation endangers institutions that, one would think, would be safe from it by the nature or scale of their activities, which take place outside the industry and its logic of profitability. If we do not act, the risk is high that this physical and living legacy will irremediably disappear from all projection spaces in the coming years.
We refuse to accept the radical stamping out of one technology by another and this rupture, which is terribly blind to the integrity of a large part of cinema, with no framework for the preservation of cinematographic projection. A video presentation of a digital reproduction, even under the glorified name of a “digital restoration”, will never equal photochemical projection. This injustice is, nevertheless, perpetrated with increasing regularity – against films, against audiences, against the history of this art form and its present-day livelihood.
In our view, and without denying the new possibilities brought by the digital format, a century-and-a-half of history cannot be reduced to a mere digitized memory, with films projected to audiences only thus. It is important that new generations are able to discover films in the ways in which they were created and projected during their time, in this living format that is film: living because organic and imperfect; because it flutters on the screen; because it is at the mercy of time’s passage.
Film prints in cinematheques must not become a mere heritage of storage warehouses and archives. In spite of the difficulties that this may entail, there must remain spaces where it is possible to view film works in their original format, including, necessarily, archives and cinematheques. How would we regard museums if they were to present, without a wince, reproductions instead of original artworks?
This is why, within the logistics of film restoration, a digital version must not be the only anticipated result. We know that, around the world, film remains the reference archival format, including for recent films, due to the fact that the lifespan and the stability of a negative exceeds by a century those of any hard disk. With this in mind, a number of projection prints intended for circulation would constitute a marginal cost to the rightsholders, and the choice to create these should be encouraged as a natural component of the practice of film restoration.
And we must remember all the films which their rightsholders cannot afford to digitize to an acceptable format, and the elitism based on economic and commercial criteria that the digital conversion signifies.
In the long term, the digital conversion could put into question the movie theater as the place where films are to be seen, since the former’s technical requirements do not include a dark room nor shared viewing. Perhaps, what we have taken for granted could later reveal itself to have been linked to a particular technical dispositif, and, inversely, this essence could regain its meaning within specific venues.
Additionaly, with the digital conversion, the traditional procedure of distributors’ depositing film prints to cinematheques at the end of commercial runs, with the idea of preserving the films in exchange for the right to show them, is no longer current. We enter head-first into an era of general pay-per-view – distributors fighting cinematheques and, by ricochet, cinematheques fighting each other for the prints they possess.