Richard J. Leskosky: 'Films' becomes a misnomer
When you visit your favorite multiplex, do you tell your friends you're going to see a film? Why would you lie to your friends like that?
Or at least the odds are that you're not telling the truth. Most multiplexes now rely on digital projection rather than film projection. And smaller commercial theatres and art houses are under terrific pressure to convert to or add digital projection capabilities.
Last year, Screen Digest, a British company that analyzes global media markets, estimated that by the end of 2013 nine out of ten screens around the world would be using the digital format. And the National Association of Theatre Owners announced last month that 92 percent of America's 40,045 screens have converted to digital.
Major releases that reach thousands of screens now have only at most 250 actual film prints struck. Digital accounts for the rest.
In January, Paramount became the first studio to announce that it would henceforth — with a very few "select exceptions" — release all its films in digital format. The first title it released nationwide solely in digital was Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street."
There's some irony there, in that Scorsese has long been a champion in the area of film preservation. (Smart studios are still preserving their productions on film, at least for the time being, but that's a subject for another column.)
On the production end, more features are being shot with digital cameras, though many directors and cinematographers still prefer film and the look it gives their creations. Even some television series, such as "The Walking Dead" and "Boardwalk Empire," still shoot on film. (But there's only one company, Kodak, still making movie film — a precarious situation.)
The day isn't far off when most cinema features will not be shot or projected using actual film, so will it make sense to call what you see on the screen a "film"?
Do you "tape" your daughter's dance recitals onto a memory card in your camera? Did you "film" her older sister's performances with your VHS video camera? Do you "tape" your favorite show on your DVR to watch later? More to the point, do you still "dial" a phone number when phones no longer have dials?
I haven't had a chance to do any real linguistic research on this, but I would at least expect that there would be some variation here, among different age groups at least, and that the use of these terms would continue to evolve.
After all, some boxers still telegraph their punches and many scripts telegraph their "surprise" endings even though many countries have discontinued telegraph service. And even though the United States still has telegram service despite Western Union closing in January 2006, I'd wager that you probably don't know anyone who has sent or received a telegram in 10 years.
Throughout the history of the cinema, people have used different terms to talk about the things they watch in theatres. "Movies" and "motion pictures" will always remain valid terms. "Flicks" ("flix" in the jargon that the trade paper "Variety" uses) is basically a slang term that has hung on long after flicker was eliminated as an artefact in motion picture projection and now has even more vitality with the success of Netflix as a delivery system/rental service.
"Talkies" had a relatively brief half-life while studios made the transition to sound (and then the films made before that became known as "silents"). You can still find "celluloid" used as a metonymic term for movies, decades after Hollywood stopped using celluloid film strips (subsequent replacement substrates acetate and polyester never caught on in jargon usage).
While "video" might be a more accurate term than "film" for what we will be seeing in theaters, the industry will never use that term because it would suggest to viewers that they're watching what they could just as easily see at home.
And even though Hollywood makes huge sums from video rentals and TV screenings (in many cases more than in original theatrical release), getting people into theater seats will remain a significant goal.
"Digital" currently has a certain sexiness as a term, in part because of its associations with other media such as computer games, smart phones and cable TV. It carries connotations of speed, action (from the games), accuracy, and sharper imagery (even though it still does not equal 35mm film). But I doubt it can make the transition from describing the projection and/or production process to designating the product.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the latest Iron Man digital!" I don't think so.
In the academic world, the University Film and Video Association (which also includes film and video makers among its members) remains one of the two major scholarly associations which focus on motion pictures. But some university programs — even leading film school New York University — have moved to the term "screen studies."
Most general viewers probably do not know or care how their movies are shot or projected (though there are many who do — and passionately, at that), so the continued use of "film" to describe what we see in cinemas may very well depend on how the studios and media outlets choose to talk about them.
With major studios coming up on their centenaries, Hollywood will be awash in nostalgia for the next decade or so and that could well be a factor in insuring the survival of "film" as a synonym for "motion picture."
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.