Forget the digital revolution, long live celluloid

A wave of digital reckoning is breaking across industries—retail, music, transportation, journalism—and Hollywood is no exception. “In 2013, the studios stopped making prints of films,” says Wexner Center for the Arts film projectionist Bruce Bartoo. “Here's the bandwagon. If you don't want to get on, good luck.”

Most movie theaters shifted from film to digital projection around the turn of the decade. Yet several, including the Gateway Film Center and Drexel Theatre, still fire up film projectors to satisfy audience members who prefer the antiquated format of 35 mm prints, much like the parallel resurgence of vinyl albums. Although celluloid films may lack the flawless sheen of digital presentations, some contend that they offer a richer, more textured experience.

“There's something about the flickering light,” says CAPA Summer Movie Series projectionist Vince Cirivello. “Digital is always squares. It's a pixel. With film, there's the grain.” Cirivello was brought on a few years after the CAPA series began introducing digital presentations into its lineup. In the early going, some attendees complained that CAPA didn't announce in advance whether a movie was being shown on 35 mm or digitally.

“They're just like, ‘Hey, you got to let us know because we're purists and we want to see 35 millimeter,'” says Rich Corsi, CAPA's vice president of programming. Message received: In the current season, digital presentations are identified and all but five programs will be presented using 35 mm prints; classics such as “Some Like It Hot” (June 15–17), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (July 18–19) and “Saboteur” (Aug. 1–2) are on film.

“The first thing we ask is, ‘Can we get it on 35 millimeter?'” Corsi says. “The only reason we show digital anything is because it is not available on 35 millimeter.” Cirivello now runs the projectors at the Ohio Theatre, where the film series is shown.

CAPA's commitment to 35 mm reflects a wider trend among area theaters. In late 2010, Gateway transitioned to digital projection and remained mostly film-free for about two years. Yet 35 mm made a comeback thanks to successful screenings of retro flicks, including the 1981 horror movie “Evil Dead.”

“We had an original ‘Evil Dead' print,” says Gateway projectionist Rachael Barbash. “It was extremely popular, and it was really fun to get the projector running again.”

A turning point came in 2014, when Christopher Nolan's “Interstellar” was made available on 35 mm. “After that, a lot of movies started to be released on film,” Barbash says.

Other examples include Quentin Tarantino's 2015 movie “The Hateful Eight,” for which Gateway invested in a higher-resolution 70 mm projector. Barbash, who began in 2002 as a projectionist at the now-defunct Arena Grand, says Columbus is lucky to retain theaters still capable of showing celluloid—and an audience discerning enough to tell the difference. This summer, Gateway will present several Stanley Kubrick films in 35 mm, including “The Shining” on July 20.

Recognizing the initial digital takeover, the Wexner Center purchased a 4K projector in 2013, but it too maintains the ability to screen 35 mm prints. This year's Wex Drive-In series of outdoor films will showcase three movies in the format: “Misery” (June 14), “Batman” (July 19) and “The Fifth Element” (Aug. 16).

“There is an aesthetic that you just can't duplicate,” Bartoo says.

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