As Film Stocks Dwindle, Movie-Makers Weigh What May Soon Be Lost

Film isn't dead — not yet, at least. Kodak recently announced that it will keep making film stock for motion pictures despite a dramatic drop in sales, after a handful of high-profile directors advocated for it. But, since the medium's days may yet be numbered, it's worth asking what film can offer that digital media can't.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Film is not dead, not yet anyway. Kodak said recently that it will keep making film stock for motion pictures. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports that decision will have an impact far beyond the handful of high-profile directors who advocated for it.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Martin Scorsese, Quentin Taratino, J.J. Abramas, all pressured Kodak to keep making 35mm film. This was a big ask - most people shoot on digital these days. And Kodak sales of motion picture film stock have dropped 96 percent over the past decade. But you've got clout if your two biggest movies shot on film made more than a billion dollars.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DARK KNIGHT")

HEATH LEDGER: (As the Joker) I took Gotham's White Knight and I brought him down to our level.

ULABY: Christopher Nolan directed "The Dark Knight" and "The Dark Night Rises."

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: There's been a rush to adopt more convenient technology.

ULABY: Nolan says that digital media was made for consumers, people like you and me, not Hollywood auteurs, like him.

NOLAN: It's very important that wherever possible we're able to sort of hold up the gold standard of imaging technology.

ULABY: The deal with Kodak's not done yet but the basic idea's that Hollywood Studios will commit to buy certain amount of film over the next few years. That's great for Christopher Nolan and Taratino and so on, but Eric Handler who's an analyst for MKM Partners believes time and technology are allied against them.

ERIC HANDLER: It's just a handful of people and overtime fewer and fewer people will probably use film.

ULABY: Handler holds little sentiment for old-fashioned film.

HANDLER: If you asked someone that goes to the movies, do you think that's a film print or do you think that's a digital print? Most people would not know.

ULABY: That's probably true, says film Professor Jennifer Peterson. But it's still worth taking a moment to think about what we lose if we use only digital media.

JENNIFER PETERSON: We lose the grain of 35mm, we lose the color of 35mm.

ULABY: And we lose something more, says artist Tacita Dean. She makes films about, well, film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FILM")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN # 1: Film is my medium. Just like oil is the medium of painters.

ULABY: That's from a recent film commissioned by the Tate Modern Gallery in London. It's called "Film." Dean works almost exclusively in 16mm film. Her preferred medium has become hard to find and process.

TACITA DEAN: We're having terrible trouble. My lab in Germany closed for all photochemical processing and neg. development two days a go in fact.

ULABY: Dean helped found an international organization. It's called "Save Film." That's also the goal of Jan-Christopher Horak. He directs UCLA's film and television archive.

JAN-CHRISTOPHER HORAK: We had been worried for quite a while that especially after Fuji announced that they were discontinuing certain film stocks that we would be left high and dry.

ULABY: You see, you cannot preserve film on digital technology. In degrades quickly and the formats become obsolete even faster. When you store something digitally it has to migrate once every three years, minimum. How much easier and cheaper, Horak says, to stick a celluloid reel in a vault for a couple hundred years. That said, he and other archivists are preparing for the worst.

HORAK: At some point we may have to buy the patents collectively through, you know, one of our national or international organizations and get a specialty operator to produce film stock.

ULABY: Just consider, says Jennifer Peterson, how much of our 20th-century history was recorded on news reels, educational movies and other forms of film.

PETERSON: So if you want to preserve our film heritage you really need to have 35mm available for film archives, otherwise you're in trouble.

ULABY: Not to long ago, Peterson decided to write a paper about artist Tacita Dean. The one who makes analog film both her medium and subject.

DEAN: This film is a document. It has become about the very fabric material a manufacturer film itself.

ULABY: But Peterson wasn't able to fly to London to see her work.

PETERSON: So I've only been able to see it online.

ULABY: That is to say only digitally. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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