Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Digital Cinema Killing 35mm Film

R. Colin Johnson |

Digital cinema based on inexpensive MEMS mirror-arrays has fueled a worldwide switchover to the digital cinema format from 35mm celluloid film cinemas, predicted to be complete by 2015. By the end of 2011, 35mm celluloid film use will pass the point of no return as the 50 percent mark is surpassed in digital cinema conversion.

The worldwide 35mm distribution of all major motion pictures will likely cease in 2015 when the number of traditional celluloid-film projectors will drop to less than 17 percent worldwide, relegating them to showing legacy films rather than new releases. According to IHS iSuppli's Digest Cinema Intelligence Service, the "reign of celluloid 35mm will come to an end in two short months [Jan. 2012] when the majority of cinema screens go digital."

The celluloid film industry is more than 120 years old, creating legends galore, from Hollywood to Kodak. The ability to create high intensity projectors with digital light processors (DLP)--micro-mirror chips from Texas Instruments--has enabled the digital cinema to reach into even rural theaters. IHS iSuppli predicts that by the end of 2012, 35mm film cinemas will decline to just 37 percent, the exact opposite of 2010 when digital screens were just 32 percent.

Digital remasters have been made from nearly all legacy 35mm films. And the quality of the digital video cameras has improved to the point where they rival the scans made of legacy celluloid films that now populate the world's digital archives of all Hollywood films.

"Movie theaters are undergoing a rapid transition to digital technology, spurred initially by the rising popularity of 3D films," said David Hancock, head of film and cinema research at IHS. "This is resulting in the rapid decline of 35mm, first losing its status as the dominant cinema technology in early 2012 and then causing it to dwindle to insignificance in four years."

Hancock claimed that the movie Avatar drove the stake in the heart of 35mm celluloid cinemas; every outlet wanted it, but only those that went digital could screen the movie in 3D. Since Avatar, the conversion to digital has jumped into double digit growth, at a 17 percent increase for the last two years. But by 2015, the phased transition to digital will be complete as the United States and the five largest countries in Western Europe will pass the critical 80 percent penetration mark where it is no longer economical to distribute celluloid films.

While the era of 35mm will end at that time, there will still be films circulating in print for art cinemas. Ironically, these last prints may increase in value as they circulate among a relatively small number of theaters dedicated to keeping the legacy of traditional film alive, according to IHS.

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