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FIlm Notebook

In the current issue of Film Comment, the magazine’s editor, Gavin Smith, has ceded the front-of-book space normally used for his “Editor’s Letter” to the renowned critic and historian Dave Kehr, who has been a contributor to FC for decades and a featured columnist for the past year or so. It’s the first time I can remember anyone but Smith writing on that page, so it’s a notable event, as far as these things go.

The occasion for Kehr’s guest appearance is his desire to advocate for studios and nonprofit exhibitors to cooperatively enact the provisions of section 108(h) of the Sonny Bono Copyright Terms Extension Act of 1998, which he says could “effectively liberate a huge body of films released between 1923 and 1936 from the indifference of corporate owners who today appear unaware of their existence.” It’s an intriguing proposition: that films not currently being commercially exploited might nonetheless be made available to be seen by the public, and that it is in the shared interest of their owners to facilitate such access.

Kehr also draws a stark picture of the degradation of the film canon by the winnowing process that accompanies advances in home and theatrical exhibition technologies (and a far more cogent picture, I don’t mind admitting, than the one I sketched in this column two weeks ago). “We’re rapidly reaching the point,” he writes, “where only the most famous American feature films—those with the biggest budgets, biggest stars, and most Oscar nominations—will remain in active circulation, while almost everything else will remain locked up in the vaults.”

That’s not a far cry from what we might expect to see happening to the first-run exhibition market once 35mm prints are finally and completely replaced by digital cartridges as the major studios’ exclusive distribution medium—a transition Fox has acknowledged it will complete within the next year or two, with the others no doubt close behind. The studios have an agreement with the major theatrical chains, and have been offering terms to independent exhibitors to help finance the expensive projection system conversions. Those terms are confidential, but most of the arrangements almost certainly include exclusive distribution deals, preventing theaters from screening any films but the ones marketed by the majors and their subsidiaries.

That won’t change much for multiplexes, but art houses that take the studios’ deal will find their programming choices dramatically limited—and those that don’t will either have to come up with $50,000–$75,000 per screen to pay for the conversion themselves or be locked out of titles like The Artist, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life—the kinds of films that pay the bills, effectively subsidizing more adventurous bookings. That set of choices is going to result in a lot of art houses becoming a lot less interesting, and a lot more of them ceasing to exist—in fact, it already has.

How does an art house stay an art house in this environment, or even stay in business? Ciné’s executive director, Gabe Wardell, says the Athens art cinema isn’t currently considering a contract with the studios. He doesn’t think that would work well with the theater’s model, and anyway, he’s not even sure a deal would be offered if Ciné wanted one. Instead, the nonprofit theater will try to finance the conversion on its own through a combination of a major capital campaign and, Wardell hopes, grant funding. There are foundations out there that want connect nonprofits with new technology, he says, and that might apply to Ciné’s needs. Another idea that interests him is the possibility that the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the organization behind the Oscars and the chief steward of the American film industry’s prestige—might be convinced to enter the fray to help independent specialty exhibitors survive. The art house model is “a major part of the moviegoing fabric,” Wardell says. “It’s an important piece of what they do.” Another option, even if only a temporary one, might be to lease a playback system from a third-party company like Proludio, which makes a player that’s designed to be compatible with various different digital formats.

However its digital conversion shakes out, Wardell expects it to make Ciné’s projection capabilities more versatile, not less. He envisions moving the Blu-ray player the theater currently uses to project films digitally to the CinéLab, facilitating much higher-quality screenings in that space. He also expects Ciné to retain its 35mm capability. The fact that the studios won’t be distributing prints doesn’t mean nobody will, and the experience of viewing a film projected from celluloid is about to become—for good or ill—one to be even more avidly sought out and lovingly cherished.