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'Wolf Of Wall Street' Won’t Devour Film Stock Cinema

Rebecca Doyle |
January 22, 2014 | 9:35 p.m. PST


Paramount's decision shouldn't come as a surprise. (christian razukas, Wikimedia Commons)
Paramount's decision shouldn't come as a surprise. (christian razukas, Wikimedia Commons)
After being nominated for six Academy Awards last week and instigating heavy debate over whether it glorified or critiqued the figures it depicts, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” has now made headlines with another controversial choice: to abandon all film stock distribution. 

The decision makes "Wolf" the first film to be distributed completely digitally, and Paramount the first studio to switch to an all-digital format after its last 35mm film prints were distributed of the studio’s previous film, "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues." In an era where the film-or-digital discussion is as feistily debated in the cinema community as the worthiness of Oscar nominees, the decision seems to be industry-altering. Recent statements, meetings, and conference directors like Christopher Nolan, JJ Abrams and – ironically – Martin Scorsese have remained faithful to the original medium, their arguments have been met with ardent opposition from digital-supporting greats like David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh and Michael Chapman.

It seems that Paramount’s decision will only add fervor to the ongoing debate – or will it?

SEE ALSO: Walking Out Of Scorsese's "The Wolf Of Wall Street"

In reality, the film versus digital debate primarily centers on the medium chosen for physical production; that is, the format in which the camera captures the original image. While the occasional diehard fans may insist on only supporting one type of distribution, we’ve all most likely seen a mix of both formats in cinemas. Additionally, all films become digitally distributed as soon as they hits iTunes, DVD and Blu-Ray. Therefore, the use of each format in physical production and distribution is distinctly separate, allowing the benefits of digital distribution to lend themselves to stories shot on both mediums. 

Digital distribution can save studios millions of dollars a year – millions that could be spent, say, on extra film stock accommodations or further digital enhancements. To distribute a movie on film to theaters, distributors must ship the individual film rolls in metal canisters to each house. While each canister can cost thousands, a digital copy can cost around $100 or less – and satellite-beamed images are even less pricey. 

SEE ALSO: Film Review: "The Wolf Of Wall Street"

From an artistic perspective, digital distribution leaves less room for deviance from the intention of the final cut. David Lynch commented in the 2013 film-vs.-digital documentary "Side by Side" that film can cause “skips, reels jamming – anything that interrupts the flow can break a person [out of the story], so you want it be smooth. Digital… can look the same – the room might be different, but it’s going to be more of what you want in each place.”

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott similarly noted that “there is nothing better than seeing a clean print projected on a big screen, with good sound and a strong enough bulb in the projector. But reality has rarely lived up to that ideal. I spent my cinephile adolescence watching classic movies on spliced, scratched, faded prints with blown-out soundtracks… I’d rather look at high-quality digital transfers.”

Anyone who fervently disagrees with the words of Lynch and Scott better see movies as many times as possible during their cinema stages, because they will never be able to view a film version on DVD.

The reality is that distribution on film isn’t remotely economically logical, and the only reason that film copies have survived this long in theaters is because there are many cinemas that do not have enough or any digital capabilities to play digital copies; currently, about eight percent of cinemas show movies exclusively on film. While it would be sad if these cinemas were forced to close, the reality is that there has been excessive prediction of what finally occurred with Wolf and there was adequate time to prepare: 20th Century Fox stated in 2011 that it would soon switch to complete digital distribution; Disney has made similar statements in the last two years;  Lionsgate was expected to make the first historic switch with Hunger Games: Catching Fire; and last year, digital distribution was expected to have a monopoly by 2015. Cinemas were not merely left to flounder. Through fall 2012, studios offered to help mitigate the cost of installing new digital screens and projectors in theaters by paying an additional fee with every digital film shipped to the movie houses. Similar plans could easily follow suit, as it would be better for the studios not to completely alienate eight percent of their potential customers.

Is the decision significant? In proving technological advances and embracing them, yes. Is it groundbreaking in the film/digital debate? Not really. Though the language surrounding the two issues is similar, in reality, production and distribution are too different and too predictable for this component to have an abrupt impact.

Will digital eventually prey on film enough to render it extinct? Perhaps – but this is not the time, nor the instigator. For now, it will have to wait for another predator, beyond The Wolf.


"'Wolf Of Wall Street' Won't Devour Film Stock Cinema" is the kick-off piece in Rebecca Doyle's new weekly column, "Smash Cut." Check back Wednesdays for the latest in movies. Reach Rebecca here; follow her on Twitter here.



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