Pandora’s Digital Box: David Bordwell’s Book on Films, Files, and the Future of Movies

Even cinephiles who embrace the look of digital projection (and I count myself among them) have plenty to worry about. The current digital transition threatens independent theaters, independent distributors, the accessibility of older movies (especially those outside the canon), and the long-term survival of yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s motion pictures.

No one has contributed to the discussion of this transition as well, or as thoroughly, pandoras_digital_box_coveras university professor/film blogger David Bordwell. In the last few months, Bordwell has written several long, extensive blog posts about every facet of the digital transition. Now he’s gathered up these posts, reorganized them, added new material, and released them as a self-published e-book called Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies. The book costs only $4 and comes as an unprotected, read-anywhere .pdf. It’s only 238 pages, and worth every penny.

Bordwell touches lightly on esthetic issues, giving arguments for both sides and noting correctly that unlike sound and widescreen, digital barely alters the movie-going experience–at least not directly. But he shows the grievous effects the transition has on the industry.

Six major production/distribution companies dominate today’s movie industry: Disney, Twentieth Century-Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, Columbia, and Universal. These companies will significantly benefit from the transition. Major theater chains like AMC will probably come out about even. Everyone else will lose.

Just one example of the problems: Small theater chains and independent theaters can’t afford the expensive digital projectors and the servers needed to control them. Many will go under because of this. Others will upgrade via a financing schemed called Virtual Price Fee (VPF). Here, a third party finances most of a theater’s conversion cost. Every time a film is booked into that theater, the distributor pays a fee–usually about $800–which is a little more than half of what the distributor saves by not making a 35mm print.

This works for the big studios, because their pre-digital business model comes pretty close to one print, one booking. Instead of spending about $1,500 to make a print that will only screen in that theater, they send a hard drive and pay a $800 VPF. But small, independent distributors make a handful of prints that move from one theater to another. They’ll have to pay multiple VPFs for every print they don’t make.

What’s more, the financier may prefer to deal only with companies with whom they already have a relationship.

Bordwell also discusses the stifling copy protection rules built into the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) standard used for theatrical projection. A theater needs permission to move a picture from one auditorium to another in the same multiplex, and the distributor can control how often a film is screened and at what times.

I wish Bordwell had covered a few topics that he doesn’t touch on. I would have liked his opinion on to what degree 4K improves on 2K; I’ve heard conflicting reports, and my only true 4K experience was inconclusive. Nor did he cover the environmental issues–one area where I assume that digital has the advantage.

Nor did I agree with Bordwell on everything. As someone who follows digital technology for a living, I doubt that obsolescence will be as much of a problem as Bordwell and others predict. Yes, Moore’s Law marches on, seemingly unstoppable, but market forces rule its effect on the real world.

True, filmmakers like James Cameron are already pushing for projector upgrades, but they don’t have the final word. The big six do. Right now, the major studios have a strong incentive to force theaters to go digital–it saves them money. They won’t have a similar incentive to push them to 4K or 8K, and they don’t want to have to pay VPFs forever. Consider, nearly 20 years after the introduction of digital sound, today’s 35mm prints still come with backward-compatible analog soundtracks. The studios will have no trouble sending out 2K DCPs for a very long time to come.

I suspect that the newer, fancier digital projectors will serve the function of full orchestras in the 1920s and 70mm in more recent decades. They will give the larger, better financed theaters a competitive edge without knocking out the smaller ones..

Despite my disagreements with some of Bordwell’s conclusions, I came away from Pandora’s Digital Box with far more knowledge and appreciation of digital projection’s strengths and problems than I had before–and I had already read his blog posts and have written on the topic myself. If you’re interested in the business or technology of motion pictures, this is $4 well spent.