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  • Archives and Their Film Collection in a Digital World; or, What Futures for the Analog Print?

In 2010, the cinema industry of two of the biggest and most economically powerful countries in the European Union made, once again, a considerable step forward into the future. In France and Germany, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, scheduled for the financially promising summer holidays of 2011, caused an enormous increase in requests for 2K projectors because many theaters wanted to show it in 3D.1 At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, it is clear that the end of analog projection is near. Some selected figures show a quickly increasing trend (Table 1).2

Some cinemas in Germany had already switched before this from hard disk to satellite, thus abandoning the physical materiality that had characterized film since 1892.3 Others had already invested in 4K projectors.4 The Digital [End Page 100] Cinema Initiatives specifications, drafted by the major American studios, published new screening standards in July 2005. Since then, the Digital Cinema System Specification, or DCI Specification, has progressively divided the world of movie theaters into those showing pixels and those still screening photographic grains. The countries composing the first group are North America (85 percent at the end of 2012), Africa and the Middle East (80 percent), Europe (67 percent), and the Asian-Pacific area (64 percent).5 The second group, those still showing prints (most of the time in addition to digital screenings),6 thus is becoming smaller and smaller. “Overall, the world’s cinemas are now over 75% converted, with approximately 50% of digital installations 3D,” reports Michael Karagosian, president of MKPE Consulting and SMPTE Fellow.7 Yet, the situation of many Western European public institutions places them among the minority in world cinema venues. Most of these are partly or totally funded by public money, as are most of the noncommercial art houses, film archives, film museums, and cinémathèques on the old continent.8

Table 1. Digitization of 2K-equipped movie houses between 2010 and 2012 in selected European countries, in percentages
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Table 1.

Digitization of 2K-equipped movie houses between 2010 and 2012 in selected European countries, in percentages

For decades, film archives have collected films, mostly on a celluloid or polyester carrier, to preserve for posterity. Besides storage, however, the missions of most publicly funded archives include providing access to these materials. Film archives, especially in Western Europe, have invested taxpayers’ money to keep their collections in good condition, often by copying them onto safety stock. Therefore it is necessary to think about the role such analog image and sound materials could play in a world that, according to specialists such as David Hancock9 and Karagosian, will switch (almost) completely from prints to hard disks. The Digital Cinema Package (DCP) is already dominant in countries showing Hollywood movies and may in some time become the only carrier.

In Western Europe, many film archives are concerned about the ongoing progression toward a purely digital cinema environment. The issue therefore is, how can cinémathèques continue to show their celluloid collections under these circumstances? What are the consequences of the conversion to digital in commercial theaters for their own archival screenings? How does the change in media influence their programming? And how may this affect their archival tasks? After a short discussion of current developments in Western European movie theaters, this article engages these questions in a case study on the current state of the art. Can the analog prints in a DCP-ruled world still be useful for public screenings in the archive’s movie hall, or will “handbags made from recycled 35mm Hollywood movies” be their destiny?10


The leading film companies of the past, in their struggle to keep their audiences and fight for new ones, have invested in technical progress. Color, sound, widescreen, Sensurround, 3D, and IMAX, to name just some of the most important innovations, were motivated by the economic goal of making movie houses more competitive. This pattern has been repeated in television, video on demand, video rental shops, and the internet, culminating in the recent switch to...


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