Opening “Pandora’s Digital Box”

While doing research for my second book on the digital distribution of movies, I read with extreme interest David Bordwell’s latest book, Pandora’s Digital Box, a highly-accessible but thoroughly researched text that focuses primarily on how digital projection systems are affecting movie theaters. Although Bordwell touches briefly on the role of video-on-demand and day-and-date distribution, he looks at these practices in order to consider how they feed into the theatrical experience. While Bordwell acknowledges that many of these changes are revolutionary–our concept of “film” is completely transformed and our film production and exhibition practices have changed dramatically–Bordwell is careful to view these changes as being entirely positive or negative; instead, recognizing how much of cinema’s origins have been lost to history, he attempts to offer detailed technical and anecdotal accounts of the digital transition.

All of these changes beg the question: what happens to “film” in a digital age? And here, I think Bordwell’s background in the poetics and the production cultures of filmmaking provides a powerful answer. Film persists, he suggests, in the “craft routines” and the visual language of the medium (215). Those routines may be altered–and some may be rendered automatic–but the 100+ years of making movies on film still speaks to us and through movies in an increasingly digital age.

Bordwell’s book is highly readable, accessible for almost anyone interested in the film industry. As he noted on his blog, he sought to write the book in a “para-academic” style, one that depended on careful inquiry and in-depth research while also using language that will be familiar to non-specialist readers. The book, in keeping with our digital age, is available as a PDF download from his website for $3.99.

Bordwell starts with the premise that, in the digital age, “films have become files” (8) and builds from there to ask what this means for moviemakers, audiences, theater owners and workers, and others who are affected by the film industry. In other words, what happens when movies are reconceptualized as objects that can be accessed on-demand, rather than as material objects that require an elaborate shipping, delivery, and storage system? One answer to this question is that much of the labor associated with movie projection becomes de-skilled and automatized. Rather than skilled, unionized projectionists, projection becomes automatic, handled through a few mouse clicks.

Throughout his career, Bordwell has been attentive to the fact that the movie industry is shaped by relations of power, and this book is no exception. One of the persistent questions that is addressed throughout the book is the issue of how the digital changeover will affect both independent filmmakers and theater owners, whether those spaces are art-house, smart-house, or simply regional mom-and-pop theaters in small towns. As Bordwell suggests, digital projection provides the Hollywood studios and distributors with much greater control over the exhibition process, allowing them to monitor more precisely how often (and even when) a film is shown. He adds that, in the long run, the conversion to digital will provide distributors with significant savings.

For independents, there are other complications. The cost of converting (and then upgrading) equipment makes local, small-scale ownership of theaters more complicated, and Bordwell cites data from National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian to suggest that hundreds of smaller theaters could close in the wake of digital conversion. Alongside of this discussion, Bordwell traces the changing role of film festivals as “distributors,” an argument that I’ve been exploring from a slightly different angle. As Bordwell notes, digital submissions have allowed for a massive expansion in the number and diversity of festivals. In 1980, he calculates that there were 100 festivals worldwide. By 2008, that number had reached 4,000 (157).

Given that theaters–even the larger commercial chains such as AMC, Regal and Cinemark–had less to gain from digital conversion, Bordwell spends quite a bit of time discussing the negotiations between theater owners and distributors and effectively makes the case that 3D, which was being touted as far back as the 2005 CinemaCon, served as a “Trojan horse” (73-74) that helped ┬áspur the “need” for digital projection. Lured by the promise of ticket surcharges and the textual novelty of movies like Avatar, theaters were ultimately willing to convert, even though the 3D bubble would eventually burst, despite current efforts by James Cameron, Peter Jackson (who is pushing for 48 frames per second projection, rather than the standard 24 fps), and others to promote the format.

1 Comment »

  1. The Chutry Experiment » “Just Like Buying a Bag of M&Ms” Said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    [...] this focus on Redbox’s role in shaping the value of cinematic texts (recall David Bordwell’s argument that “films have become files”) placed too much emphasis on the novelty of that [...]

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