If the industry experts interviewed in “Side by Side” are correct, children born today will graduate high school at a time when films are no longer shot on film.
An industry standard for more than a century, celluloid is on the verge of being squeezed out of the business by digital recording.
“Side by Side,” which makes its county debut Sunday at the Nevada Theatre, explores the history and future of filmmaking by examining the new options available to artists as technologies have changed and advanced.
The documentary features talking-head interviews with some of the giants of cinema — Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, David Fincher, etc. — discussing the advent of digital filmmaking, the unique nature of celluloid and the effect of all this change on both producers and consumers of movies.
While opinions are mixed on whether the direction the medium is taking is positive or negative, there is little disagreement that the path is already set. As digital production becomes less and less expensive and as theaters convert more and more of their projectors to digital, celluloid film will be phased out.
Nevada County filmgoers may have noticed the signs outside the Del Oro Theatre, Sierra Cinemas and Sutton Cinemas that tout the local conversion to digital projection and sound, which was completed in October of last year.
“I’ve been in the business all my life,” said Mike Getz, owner of all three Grass Valley theaters with his wife Barbara. “I was hesitant (to convert) because I wasn’t sure the quality would be as good as film, but in my opinion, digital projection is fabulous. The picture and the sound are just incredibly good.”
While Getz said the difference may not be immediately apparent to filmgoers, the quality of celluloid deteriorates as it runs through the projector several times a day, every day of the week. The digital file does not degrade and will project at the same quality closing night as opening night.
“It’s not a change you notice,” said Getz. “You only notice when it isn’t good. Digital projection is just as good every time it’s shown.”
Spearheading the conversion to digital were Jonathan Zorne, operations manager of Sierra Theaters, and Michael LaMarca.
Zorne has been with Sierra Theaters for 18 years, spending 16 of those working on celluloid, but said he was excited by the prospect of switching to digital.
“With film, it gets dirty, it gets scratched, and it moves on the screen, even if your projector is perfectly aligned and everything is adjusted correctly,” he said. “Inevitably, things happen, and once a film is damaged, you can’t undo that. Digital has completely eliminated a lot of those things.
“Operationally, the whole process is significantly easier, from when you get the movie to when you run it on a daily basis to eventually when you send it away.”
He agreed with Getz’s assessment that the quality of digital holds up better over time and went on to say he prefers the digital image, while acknowledging a fondness for film.
“With digital, I think the image is better. It’s crisper, and it’s stable,” said Zorne. “At the same time, there’s definitely a nostalgic thing about film. There’s still a projector at the Nevada Theatre that shows 35-millimeter films every couple weeks, and I hope we get to continue doing that.”
If the switch to digital has been a marked improvement for viewers, the benefit has been 10-fold for independent filmmakers, the documentary argues.
Film and more cumbersome film cameras are generally cost-prohibitive to anyone without a big budget. However, cheap, commercially available digital cameras have “democratized” the process and allowed those with an idea and motivation to make their dreams into reality.
Zorne said the move to digital will not only help larger Hollywood studios and theater chains but also smaller companies that often struggle to show their films in front of an audience.
“Film is an expensive medium to get your finished product on, and I think for aspiring filmmakers all theses years, that was kind of the gold standard,” said Zorne. “For independent companies or even the kid who wants to make a movie with equipment you can get at Best Buy, I think movie theaters being digital will give them a better chance of getting their movies seen.”
In a county that plays host to two film festivals — the Nevada City Film Festival and the Wild and Scenic Film Festival — what’s good for independent cinema is good for the county.
“Side by side,” directed by Chris Kenneally and produced by Keanu Reeves and Justin Szlasa, will show at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City.