One Downside of Digital Projection

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of digital projection–not only for today’s movies but classics, as well. But I’m not a fundamentalist. Digital has its downsides. And one of those downsides is the number of great motion pictures now unavailable in any decent theatrical format–digital or otherwise.

More and more classics are becoming available on DCP–the digital format used professionally in multiplexes. Over the next eight days, the Castro is screening Journey to Italy, Stromboli, and several recently restored silent films by Alfred Hitchcock off of DCPs. The  Pacific Film Archive has several classics on DCP on its current schedule, including The Tin Drum, Tristana, Port of Shadows, and those same Hitchcock classics. The CineMark multiplex chain screens classics every week off DCPs, although they understandably stick to popular, English-language titles. They’re doing Spielberg this month, and they may do Hitchcock and Lean soon, but don’t hold your breadth for Bunuel.

It costs time and money to digitize an old movie properly, so that the DCP–or even the Blu-ray–can stand up proudly against a good 35mm print. And as the price of making 35mm prints goes up as demand goes down, the studios will become much more selective about who they’ll rent a print to.

Consider On the Town, one of the best MGM Technicolor musicals from the glory days of the Arthur Freed era. Made in 1949, it never achieved the lasting fame of Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris, but it should have. It would make my list of top ten musicals–I don’t think Paris would make my top twenty.

The plot is a bit like Before Sunrise, but funnier and with dancing. Three sailors arrive imagein New York for a 24-hour leave–precious little time to see the sights, drink in the atmosphere, and get laid (of course, they couldn’t say that in 1949).

What makes On the Town so special–beyond the great songs, terrific choreography, and witty script–is the prevailing sense of friendship and camaraderie. These three sailors and the women who fall for them all seem to genuinely like and support each other. The movie also treats sexuality in a surprisingly upbeat and positive way for its time. The women in the story (Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, and the infinitely funny Betty Garrett) are as motivated by lust as the men (Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin, and Frank Sinatra). It’s just too bad that screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden updated their own wartime stage musical to the post-war period, losing the urgency that came from not knowing if the sailors would come back alive.

The Cerrito will screen On the Town Thursday night. But they’re screening it off a DVD. No better option is available.

Warner Brothers, which now owns On the Town, has not given it the digital restoration it deserves. And that means no DCP and no Blu-ray. I don’t know if the problem is financial (the movie might not be a big enough money-maker) or technical (there may be no good source materials). I’d love to hear what someone at Warner Brothers has to say on this subject.

So why can’t the Cerrito show it in 35mm–the picture’s original format? When the Cerrito went digital, they kept their film projectors. They even have two projectors in their downstairs auditorium, allowing them to screen old prints. (See Methods of Projection for an explanation.) According to my Rialto Cinemas contact, “WB did not offer a 35mm so I don’t know if one is available or not.”

The Castro screened On the Town in December, 2011–I assume in 35mm. 18 months later, Warner doesn’t even offer the print to the Cerrito. Sad.