Cigarette Burns Cinema prides itself on screening films on film, primarily 35mm, but 16mm works just fine as well, and few things get the blood boiling more than that loaded little question; “Is it cut?”
It’s a bit like “are we there yet?”. Except I’m not your father and I can’t pull the car over to the side of the road and leave you there, as much as I might like to.
The thing is there are many problems with the “is it cut/uncut?” question, but one of the key things it reveals is the level of misunderstanding and lack of knowledge on the enquirer’s part. It may come loaded with good intentions, but it’s like asking for “vinyls” in a record store.
You’re trying to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but I’m sad to say you kinda don’t, and it’s pretty obvious straight away.
Why would an innocent enough sounding question make you look like your supposed fountain of knowledge is running dry? Well take my hand and wander through the quagmire with me, try to keep up, there are a lot of twists and turns ahead as I lay the foundations of film and it’s ever decreasing availability.
It’s a known fact that 35mm prints are not falling off the shelves at the offices of your local film distributor. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to source them and there are a variety of reasons for this.
First up, the archives. Many have started to lock their doors, turning themselves into cine-preservation centres by keeping those prints away prying eyes, removing the availability of a chunk of titles from exhibition. Less access equals less film.
Then you’ve got costs. Distributors have strongly embraced the digital evolution, with only a handful of prints being struck a year, and in turn have started scrapping their print collection. You can’t argue that a 35mm print is as easy to store or transport in comparison to a digital version of said film.
Your typical 90 minute film will be about 5 reels, housed in a box that’s about 40cm x 40cm x 30cm and weigh roughly 22kg, which ideally needs to be stored in a climate-controlled space. When you’re talking about a couple of films this is easy to manage, but when you start looking at the films of a single studio you’re taking about a space that’ll need to hold thousands of these, which as you can imagine is a huge cost.
How about transportation? It wasn’t until the past twenty years that simultaneous wide release was a thing, and it became a thing in part because of the cost saving measures of shipping significantly smaller and easier to replicate DCPs.
Now when a rolled out release happens it’s the marketing that drives those decisions, as opposed to not actually being able to afford to strike more prints.
Take film like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (and it’s a great example for this general discussion, for a million reasons), which began it’s theatrical life with screenings in a few cinemas in Connecticut. Its opening run was a huge success, and once it’s finished its engagement in New England those prints would then be shipped off to the next region.
This process was repeated over and over again until its run was life on the road was done. The distributor would then junk* the majority of those prints to lower those storage costs and keep one, maybe two, for future use at the many repertory cinemas around the world.
So what exactly does the junking of prints entail? Usually it means a film is headed straight for the skip, though in some cases they might also take the added step of introducing them to a bandsaw them. Yes, you read that correctly; A BANDSAW!
Take a look for yourself at this heart-breaking process
: NSFW :
This total and complete destruction is largely due to the fact studios are notoriously protective of their 35mm prints. They paid to have them struck and they legitimately belong to the studio, so nobody else is allowed to own them.
On top of that, pirating has, surprise surprise, is also an issue. Famously, Roddy McDowall was arrested by the FBI for his own film collection, on the grounds of copyright infringement in 1974, his $5million dollar film collection was confiscated.
These sorts of horror stories have lead private collectors to be particularly protective and secretive over their collections. Piracy was and always has been a serious matter.
When looking deeper at the impact of ‘upgrades’ from 35mm to DCP on older titles there is also the impact that shelving of a title has as studios look to maximise financial return on their DCP.
Take CHINATOWN for example. A couple of years ago the film was subject to a rather large-scale digital “upgrade” which saw the film receive a long overdue theatrical re-release. Good news for casual film-fan as it meant the film would now be running at your local Mega Plex, bad news for those a little more attached to cinema as you’re now not allowed to see the film on 35mm in a public space.
Yep – no more CHINATOWN on 35mm….
Of course 35mm prints are now prized artefacts and collectors know their value and rarity. You could spend decades looking for that one print, and no one can say for certain how many prints of each film are actually out there in the wilderness. They were secreted into the collector market through nefarious means and nobody wants you to know where they ended up.
Next we have the fact that celluloid is more or less in a constant state of deterioration, this can be retarded in the aforementioned climate controlled rooms. However, more often than not, people didn’t tend to store films the way they ought to leading them to fade – red, pink, purple, depending on the type, and depending on how far gone, they might as well be bandsawwed. I’ve junked a few prints that were so far gone, or had succumbed to the dreaded vinegar syndrome, that the reels they are mounted on had more value than the print itself.
Every time a print goes through a projector it suffers damage, how much is dependent upon the projectionist and how well the projector is maintained, but minor scratches are inevitable. 35mm prints come in 5-8 reels (roughly 22min per reel), the tops and tails of those reels are often taped together so that they can be played continuously without disrupting the viewing experience.
Over time and after multitudes of screenings and general handling the tops and tails get battered, the emulsion pulls off, the film gets brittle. Next thing you know, you’re missing 1, 2, 3, 8 frames between reels. You’ll notice this when the film you are watching jumps suddenly.
There’s also the changeover method which requires two projectors side by side running one reel at a time, but very few cinemas have two projectors anymore, let alone one (I think that there are 70 screens in the UK that can show 35mm, out of more than 4,000). This method leads to significantly less damage, which tends to be the preferred method for archival film and in most instances you can only screen archival film with a changeover set-up.
All of the above make the attempts to screen 35mm that much tougher, but when you’re screening cult or genre films, those struggles are increased exponentially as smaller independent films didn’t always get a lot of prints struck.
So now I’ve laid all that out, let’s get back to this frustrating “is it cut?” question.
Let’s go back to LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT; it gets screened in Connecticut then that print (and I’m making this up now) moves on west to Ohio, Colorado, and finally LA. Along the way it passes through a variety of projectionist’s hands, all of which have a different level of experience and respect for the artifact they are handling. Transferred to different cinemas, all with different moral compasses, maybe taking out disagreeable parts, or snipping out a frame of breasts for their collection. By the time it hits LA, has it been cut?
MY BLOODY VALENTINE