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Will the last movie theaters in Nashville to show celluloid film please stand up?

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Ask someone why they prefer films projected from celluloid and the results they yield on the screen, and responses resemble those of vinyl enthusiasts defending what the industry considers an antiquated medium. It's hard to pin down, but the 35mm print feels warm as opposed to the cold vibes given off by digital projection or, say, an iPod.

The cue mark, signaling the end of a reel of film, or the pop and crack of a needle meeting a record lets you know that a tangible medium is involved. Moreover, it's a matter of historical accuracy.

"It comes to the question of original format," says Jim Healy, director of programming at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque. "Is something shot in 35mm best seen in 35mm? I would say, at this point, yes."

But Healy cautions against holding up 35mm film as a pure medium, unchanged from time immemorial. While the digital takeover is perhaps more radical, and its effects on the industry more sweeping, it's not the first time change has come to the cinema. Changes in film stock (from nitrate prints to acetate or polyester) and projector bulbs (from the once ubiquitous Carbon arc lamp to the Xenon) mean that even on film, the Casablanca you see today isn't exactly 1943's Best Picture. 

"To argue that 35mm film must be seen on film," Healy says, "well — you can say, isn't the difference between watching Casablanca on Blu-ray vs. a 35mm print roughly the same as watching a 35mm print today vs. one from 1944? Maybe. But there has always been change."     

For repertory programmers like Healy, though, there's more at stake in the celluloid-digital debate than mere appearance. As more theaters switch to digital projection, he worries the studios will see no point, or profit, in distributing the 35mm prints that constitute most of cinema's history.

"If 35mm projection becomes a rarified form, then is it in the studio's best interest to have someone on hand that handles repertory distribution?" asks Healy, who spent nine years as an assistant curator at one of the country's most prestigious film archives, the historic George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. "If there are only a handful of venues, does it make economic sense to hold someone in that role at the studios, who only works with a small amount of repertory theaters in the country?"

Were studios to shut down access to their back catalog — and Healy says some already have — independent repertory theaters such as The Belcourt would struggle to sustain vital repertory programming.

At that point, the only solution would be to make the expensive switch to digital projection systems — a much easier transition for theater chains than for small independents. And independent arthouses such as The Belcourt would have to rely on the hope that the studios begin digitizing their back catalogs, a task they're in no hurry to undertake.

For a theater like the Belcourt, the threat of evaporating repertory options is only compounded by the seeming inevitability that even independent art films will eventually go digital. Leonard says the theater knows a major digital purchase is coming, but that it won't pull the trigger until absolutely necessary — i.e., if major arthouse distributors no longer offer 35mm prints, as they've threatened within the next few years.

"No matter what, 35mm will always be our first choice," says Belcourt executive director Stephanie Silverman. But when or if the time comes, Silverman says the theater will be looking at a digital upgrade (projector, lenses, hardware, etc.) currently estimated at between $100,000 and $120,000 per auditorium. Even then, it won't please loyal customers who prefer celluloid.

But how many people who can tell digital from celluloid (or who care) really exist? The city's most discerning movie lovers flock to The Belcourt, which is nearing the end of its centenary salute to director Nicholas Ray — catnip to hardcore cinephiles. Last weekend, a shipping snafu stranded the theater without a 35mm print of Ray's 1957 war drama Bitter Victory, the movie that prompted the young critic Jean-Luc Godard to exclaim, "Le cinema, c'est Nicholas Ray." It was forced to show the film projected from DVD, a notch in quality below studio-grade digital projection.

If ever an occasion warranted moaning from forlorn film fans, this would seem to be it. But David Phillipy, who runs the Friday movie night at Trinity Presbyterian Church and frequents The Belcourt and Green Hills 16 alike with his wife Carol, said the switch was "a nonissue."

"I'm not enough of a technocrat to know that kind of thing," Phillipy said during a post-film discussion Monday night at Fido. Carol Phillipy, on the other hand, said that she generally notices whether a movie is shown on film or digital, but it rarely matters to her. Story and acting are more important to her than technical considerations.

"If I get into the movie, it doesn't really matter," she said.

To many, obituaries for 35mm projection will seem like undue hand-wringing over the inevitable progress of technology. Leonard and Healy both admit that digital projection may soon be indistinguishable from film to even the most trained eye.

"Digital is getting better and better, and I think we could very well be in a place, very soon, where even I would not be able to tell the difference if I didn't turn around and see the projector in the booth," Healy says. "It's getting very good, and it's miles beyond where it was even five years ago. I'm impressed with digital projection, and economically it makes sense, especially for distributors."

But to die-hard cinephiles, what's at stake is the preservation of an experience, much as readers delight in bookstores where people in the flesh talk about books you can hold. Watching from a booth at the Belcourt as thousands of feet of film are fed into a whirring apparatus before a projectionist's watchful eye, it seems more like an art than mere technology.

"The celluloid dream may live on in my hopes, but digital commands the field," wrote Roger Ebert on his blog a few weeks ago, as if tolling the funeral bell. "[My] war is over, my side lost, and it's important to consider this in the real world." In the face of the evidence, disagreement would be foolish.

Yet while cinema often asks viewers to consider the real world, it also allows them on occasion to escape it. So as for the celluloid dream, cinephiles will hold out hope a little longer, and take advantage of the opportunities that remain — like this weekend's Belcourt screenings of Nicholas Ray's 1958 musical melodrama Party Girl, shot in widescreen CinemaScope and air-raid siren Metrocolor, which will likely be your last chance ever in these parts to see it projected in 35mm.

Whatever happens, there's cold comfort in the slogan on the Nashville Film Festival's website: "Film Today. Change Tomorrow."


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