Paramount Cuts Film, Giving The Starring Role To Digital

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Paramount Pictures will stop distributing its movies in film, moving to a completely digital format. It isn't just cinephiles who are reeling; archivists rely on film as a medium that will stand the test of time. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, about the implications of Paramount's move.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's a heavy burden for such a light movie but it's possible that Anchorman 2 is the movie that will ring in the end of film. The L.A. Times reported last week that Paramount Pictures, the studio that made "Anchorman 2," will move to a completely digital format to distribute its films to theaters. It's a shift with huge implications, not just for cinephiles who are attached to the warmth and quality of 35 millimeter film, but for archivists who rely on film as a medium that will stand the test of time.

Jan-Christopher Horak is the director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It's one of the largest repositories of moving images in the world, so he's been playing close attention to the move toward digital. He joined us from our bureau at NPR West. Welcome to the program.

JAN-CHRISTOPHER HORAK: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I want to start by talking about the idea of archiving. I can imagine that archiving digitally is a lot easier, right? Making this move to digital, a good idea?

HORAK: Actually, it is not easier. It is more difficult. With 35 millimeter film, which we've had for the last 120 years, we can take a film - a negative or even a print - and we can put it into a vault. And as long as we store it cold and dry enough, we will know it will last for 500 to a thousand years.

(LAUGHTER)

HORAK: With digital there's the issue that the formats keep changing. So the life expectancy of most digital files, these days, is 18 months to two years. And so, when you put away or archive a digital film, you have to migrate it to a new format every five years, maybe outside 10 years, but probably not. And the cost for migrating one film is going to be about $20,000.

MARTIN: And you talk about the risks of digital archiving, that things can just disappear. Can you give us some examples of important films that perhaps are no longer because of this?

HORAK: It does happen but it also happens that just single files disappear. "Toy Story 2," in production, they virtually lost everything. There is quite a funny animated film on the YouTube that you can see about how the only way they saved it was because of the makers had it on their home computer. And they literally, like with an ambulance, rushed to the house, packed this computer in cotton and gingerly brought it back to the studio because those were the only remaining files on over a hundred million dollar production.

MARTIN: Oh, man. Why do studios want to do this? Why are they supporting this move to digital, if it's so risky and expensive?

HORAK: It's expensive when we're talking about archiving. It is for the studios, of course, much cheaper when we're talking about distribution. In the old days, you know, a big film, they would have made five to 7,000 prints and had to ship them out all over the country. Nowadays, they put them on a DCP and, I think, in the very near future they're just going to shoot them up to a satellite and shoot them down into the theaters, so that distribution costs are significantly less.

MARTIN: Sounds like the future is moving towards digital come what may. So how do you try to hedge against the risks that you've outlined?

HORAK: Digital is the future and we are, of course, are not against digital. However, I strongly believe that in order to protect your investments, whether you're in the studio, or protect your artifacts, as in an archive, it is still necessary to at least make a negative on film so they know they have at least one copy that is safe and protected no matter what they do in the digital realm.

MARTIN: Jan-Christopher Horak is the director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He talked to us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California.

Chris, thanks so much for taking the time.

HORAK: My pleasure.

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