Paramount goes digital-only in US for features, as 35mm film era nears end

Paramount brings down curtain on 35mm film era in US cinemas, and other studios set to follow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 10:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 2:47am


Roll credits. For more than a century, Hollywood has relied on 35mm film to capture its fleeting images and deliver them to the silver screen. Now, in a historic move, Paramount Pictures has become the first big studio to stop releasing its major movies on film in the United States.

The studio's Oscar-nominated film The Wolf of Wall Street is the studio's first movie in wide release to be distributed entirely in digital format, according to movie industry executives briefed on the plan.

Paramount recently notified cinema owners that its Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which opened in December, was the last movie released on 35mm film, the executives said. Previously, only small movies such as documentaries were released solely in digital format.

The decision is likely to encourage other studios to follow suit, accelerating a complete phase-out of film that could come by the end of the year.

"It's of huge significance because Paramount is the first studio to make this policy known," said Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. "For 120 years, film and 35mm has been the format of choice for theatrical presentations. Now we're seeing the end of that. I'm not shocked that it's happened, but how quickly it has happened."

Paramount has kept its decision under wraps, at least in Hollywood, and a spokeswoman for the studio did not return calls for comment.

Its reticence reflects the fact that no studio wants to be seen as the first to abandon film, which retains a cachet among purists. Some studios may also be reluctant to give up box-office revenue by bypassing cinemas that can show only film.

About 8 per cent of US cinemas have not gone digital and can show movies only in the old-fashioned film format. Internationally, Paramount is still expected to ship film prints to Latin America and other foreign markets where most cinemas still show movies on film.

Studios prefer digital distribution because it is much cheaper. Film prints cost as much as US$2,000; a digital copy on disc usually costs less than US$100. Eventually, these movies could be beamed into cinemas by satellite, saving even more.

Digital technology also enables cinemas to screen higher-priced 3-D films and makes it easier for them to book and programme entertainment.

Other studios were expected to jump on the digital bandwagon first. 20th Century Fox sent a letter to exhibitors in 2011 saying it would stop distributing film "within the next year or two". And last year, many industry watchers expected Lions Gate to make history with an all-digital November release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Paramount's move comes nearly a decade after studios began working with exhibitors to help finance the replacement of film projectors.

As a result, large chains have moved quickly to embrace digital technology: 92 per cent of the 40,045 screens in the US have already converted to digital, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

The march to digital puts further pressure on some small-town community cinemas that have been struggling to finance the purchase of US$70,000 digital projectors.

More than 1,000 cinemas, about half independently owned, have not converted to digital.