Director Christopher Nolan Is On A Quest To Save 35mm Film

Director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) is old school.  He loves film, loves what it can do.  But he sees the handwriting on the wall, and he thinks that if the studios get their way, film will go the way of the do-do.  But Nolan isn’t going into that good night.  Like his main character, Bruce Wayne, Nolan is on a crusade to stop what’s encroaching on his own cinematic Gotham City … digital video.

“The danger comes from filmmakers not asserting their right to choose that format,” Nolan says. “If they stop exercising that choice, it will go away. I tell people, ‘Look, digital isn’t going away.’ ”

Although digital projection has been available for a few years, it was mostly used for events or as a choice in a single theater.  Then James Cameron’s Avatar came along.  Avatar was being released primarily in 3D, but the film needed digital projection.  As a result, movie theaters, sensing huge audiences at $15 a ticket, began frantically converting their theaters into digital projection.  The result was fewer and fewer screens were going to be available for the convention film projection that has served a movie going audience for over a century.

Now, studios are seeing significant cost savings forsaking film altogether and they’re pushing filmmakers to release their films digitally.  And who can blame them?  When you look at the numbers it’s an easy choice – to print a film on 35mm reels and ship to theaters costs about $1500.  Multiply that by 4,000 screens and it really ads up.  Digital, by contrast costs a tenth that and most of that is for hard drive costs and shipping.  And soon, it’ll be a digital download which will cost nearly nothing.

“Distributing movies digitally into theaters has been the holy grail of the studios,” former Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock told Variety back in 2010. “They stand to eliminate billions of dollars in costs in coming years without spending very much.”

Nolan isn’t the only director waging an offensive against digital.  Steven Spielberg, known for his effects heavy action films, has been slow coming around to the digital medium.  In fact, if you watch Jurassic Park‘s behind the scenes DVD, you see Spielberg and his crew evolve from traditional optical effects to coming around to making the dinosaurs with computer generated imagery (CGI).  But even then, Spielberg still preferred to edit on a trusty Movieola. His friend George Lucas, by contrast, jumped into the deep in the digital pool from the get-go, filming the prequel series of Star Wars with high definition Sony HD cameras with Panavision lenses, and only using film as an end user medium.  He’s never looked back.

So when Nolan invited the elite A-list directors to a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, he had ulterior motives.  He wanted to impress upon his colleagues in the art to not abandon film.  To remember what film can do.  But he’s got  tough road to hoe.  The digital juggernaut has picked up speed, largely due to the influx of lower cost cameras like the RED Epic and Scarlet, and the Canon 5D Mk. III, 1DC, and C500.  And it doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.  In fact, according to IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service, 83% of theaters will be using digital projection by 2013, leaving film projection largely in an art house domain.  And by 2015, it’s anticipated that, like black and white movies, film will become an art choice, rather than enjoying the market share it once did.  And that means those art houses – many located in lavish palace style theaters, will begin to disappear.

Hat Tip – LA Weekly


About James DeRuvo

James has a multi-faceted career that spans radio, film and publishing. A writer about the technology in the video industry for nearly 20 years, James is also an award winning film director, having garnered a Telly Award for his short film Searching for Inspiration. He's also worked as a producer of many talk radio programs in Los Angeles with topics ranging from entertainment to travel to technology.


  1. Jamie Mathers says:

    I saw ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ in 35mm last night at my local cinema! What can I say, the quality was sooooo much better than the digital version. The moment the curtains opened it was blatantly obvious that I was watching a print, rather than a file. Fine grain, no pixels!! I am staggered at the morons at the studios who are trying to phase out a superior format for one that simply doesn’t cut it. I’m going to carry on enjoying these movies projected on film for as long as I can. We’re lucky we’ll still have arthouse cinemas to show them once the multiplexes completely abandon them. If Christopher Nolan’s story comes down to one thing it’s that the artist (for the most part) has always given the most that they can conjour up, while the studio will give the least amount that they can get away with. Digital still isn’t good enough unless it’s shot that way, despite people trying to convince us.

  2. Peter Walukiewicz says:

    Christopher Nolan, God Bless You! I was pleased to hear, that you shot ‘The Dark Night Rising’ on 35mm film stock. It was only a few years ago, that Steven Spielberg over-ruled George Lucas, and insisted in shooting “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal skull” in 35mm, and not Digital, as George Lucas had wanted. How can we say ‘A Film by Ridley Scott’, if no film is used in the production? Or,how can we call the Tribeca or Sundance, a Film festival? New technology is fine, but not at the expense of the filmmaker selling his soul, just so Hollywood can make a profit? I started out as an ‘apprentice’ motion picture projectionist way back in 1980. It was at the Showcase Cinemas 1-5 in Orange, Connecticut. I learned my craft on a 70mm print of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. We had to ‘change-over’ the huge 70mm reels every twenty minutes, as platters were not yet installed at our theater. I was involved in Lucasfilm’s TAP (Theater Alignment program). If you kept your projection booth and equipment clean, and in good working order, there was nothing wrong with a good 35 or 70mm Film presentation. Period. I gave my heart and soul to 35mm motion picture exhibition. So many projectionists have been forced to look for other jobs, after devoting an entire life to the industry. If this is Hollywood’s way of saying “Thank You!” to us, it is indeed a bitter pill to swallow. Where is the backing of our union? Have they been ‘bought out’ by Hollywood as well? If 35mm motion picture exhibition is to go away, I will not go out to see a ‘movie’ anymore. I will wait for the Blu-Ray release, and watch it at home. …Popcorn, anyone?

  3. John says:

    It’s great that Nolan is trying to save 35mm but i fear he is fighting a losing battle. I work as a projectionist at a small one screen cinema in the UK and we’ve just turned digital. We cant keep the 35mm projector as there simply isn’t the room. I loved 35mm, it was real, you could touch it, it had character. As impressive as the new system is and the picture and sound quality IS superb it just has no soul, spirit or magic about it. Also, logistically, it makes things a lot easier, no more splicing reels together or lumping some heavy as f**k film up to the projection room but i’d happily do all that again over installing a hard drive and building a playlist which is much like building a playlist on an iPod. I miss the scratches, the bits of dust and the reel markers; might as well watch a DVD at home! Don’t get me wrong, I’m no technophobe but a hundred years or so of film projection and the role of the projectionist has been wiped out in a single blow. Essentially a cinema can now run without a specified projectionist and even be controlled remotely from some laptop 100 miles away. But, i suppose progress is progress and I guarantee the film companies and distributors couldn’t give half a damn about 35mm on any level.

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