Why should you care? I’m glad you asked.

Film is dead. Quentin Tarantino read the last rites at the Cannes Festival this year when he arrived for a special 20th anniversary projection of Pulp Fiction. He was asked about the rise and rise of digital, both as a means of making and screening films, and he wasn’t happy.

‘As far as I’m concerned digital projections and DCP’s (are) the death of cinema as I know it…The fact that most films are now not presented in 35mm means that the war is lost. Digital projection, that’s just television in public. And apparently the whole world is OK with television in public, but what I knew as cinema is dead’.

Why should you care? I’m glad you asked.

A DCP is a Digital Cinema Package, a hard drive with a movie loaded onto it. Most of the world’s cinemas now plug these into digital projectors, which they have been encouraged to install by the major studios over the last decade, at vast expense. Someone presses a button and the movie runs, usually without a hitch. What could be wrong with that? When celluloid ran on reels, they deteriorated with every screening. The film would jam, having to be cut and spliced, and those seeing a film in Woop Woop three months after it came out got the rough end of the pineapple. Surely digital is better? It’s the same after 1000 projections as after one.

Nope, not really and not quite. Digital doesn’t deteriorate, but theatres do. That Woop Woop theatre may not be able to afford modernity.  Many such theatres will close down because they can’t spend $150,000 on a new digital projector for each screen. And if they try to do good original programming, as some rural cinemas in Australia do, they are going to find it harder to get prints.

This is already happening in the US, where studios such as Fox have announced that they will soon stop supplying film prints. If the Woop Woop Regal wants to show a mint print of say, Lawrence of Arabia, they will have to settle for a DCP, which doesn’t look as good. And the studio will decide which old titles get made into DCPs. Naturally, it will be a fraction of what they own. Tarantino owns the New Beverly art house cinema in Los Angeles, where they still use 60-year-old projectors, but his problem will soon be what to show. 

If film is dead, how come the new Star Wars movie is being shot on film, not digital? That’s right: JJ Abrams will reboot the series with the bold and beautiful photochemical process that film-makers have used for the first 100 years of the medium. Why? I blame Jar Jar Binks. George Lucas so loved the excitement of digital that he almost killed his own legacy with Binks, the first fully digital lead character in a Star Wars movie (Episode 1, The Phantom Menace). Binks showed how awful a digital future might be, and the next two movies – shot on digital cameras – confirmed it. Abrams is taking the series back to film to reconnect it to the look and feel of the original trilogy. To make it real again, in other words (irony intended).

Now we’re at the nub.  A film is a physical artefact, something that can be projected, transported and stored. Shooting on film is expensive, so directors have to be careful. Light it badly and the shot is ruined. Digital frees the director to shoot as much as she wants, both a strength and weakness. The director need not be as careful; colours and palette can be altered in post-production. Digital editing is faster than on film, so endless variation is possible. The director doesn’t have to know what he wants; the editor can just keep redoing it. Discipline and foresight are not as important. Digital is forgiving, film is not.

Doesn’t that mean digital is a better way to make films? No, it’s just easier, and some think that’s a bad thing. When film was hard and expensive, it kept the riff-raff out. Now anyone with a Canon 5D and a Macbook can make a film, and they do. Digital has democratised the process and at the same time degraded it.

A few major directors hold out, Christopher Nolan being the best known. The director of the Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception works only in celluloid, and he preaches the gospel.  ‘Film is the best way to capture an image and project that image. It just is, hands down. That’s based on my assessment of what I am seeing as a film-maker,’ he told an audience of theatre owners at their 2014 convention in Las Vegas.

He’s not alone. Even as the film labs are disappearing, some hip young directors cling to film. They like the way it looks, the beauty of the grain, the subtlety of its larger dynamic range, the concreteness. And archivists are terrified of a digital future, in which digital formats come and go with frightening rapidity. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2012 that the original files of Toy Story 2 were erased by mistake at Pixar. The film was saved only because one of the key personnel had taken a copy home, to work on it.

Film prints don’t erase themselves. If they are stored properly, they will last well over 100 years.  We’ve already lost a huge amount of the world’s film heritage, through lack of care. The digital universe looks like making that worse, not better.