MUELLER: The future of film flames out

The Milwaukee Film Festival is barely a week old, and I’ve already seen more movies than I have fingers. My meals have consisted solely of Junior Mints – preferably chilled – and Mr. Pibb. I’ve spent more time in a comfy movie theater seat than I have in my own bed.

And I’ve never been happier.

The movies have filled my brain with seemingly endless thoughts and questions about my preconceived notions about life and the world that we all live in. There’s one thought, however, that hadn’t come remotely close to entering my mind.

What if this movie doesn’t start?

It seems like a ridiculous notion, but it was a very real situation that happened on a massive stage last Saturday night.

The New York Film Festival, one of the most recognized and respected festivals in the United States, is currently in the middle of its 50th anniversary. The event has drawn some of cinema’s biggest names and biggest films, including Ang Lee’s upcoming “Life of Pi” and “Flight,” Denzel Washington’s upcoming pilot drama.

One of the festival’s biggest presentations was the premiere of esteemed director Brian De Palma’s new thriller, “Passion,” starring Rachel McAdams and “Prometheus’s” Noomi Rapace. De Palma is the man behind such hits as “Scarface” and the first “Mission: Impossible,” so the debut for his latest feature was a major event.

Unfortunately, with a packed crowd including the director himself, the festival had to cancel the screening at the last minute due to an issue with the DCP, or digital cinema package. Critics and cinephiles were outraged: How could the supposed future of movies – digital projection – mess up one of film’s most essential aspects, the ability to be projected?

Back in the days of old school projection with real physical film, there was never even the faintest idea that a movie wouldn’t even play. Sure, there would be the occasional glitch, such as a showing starting a little late or the film scratching or burning, but the movie almost always ran.

A movie projector can create movie magic, but it is still just a machine, a logical combination of  gears, rollers and bulbs. Of course it could malfunction, but there were only so many things that could really go wrong, and they were easy fixes: just follow the celluloid trail to see where things went off the rails, sometimes literally.

Then “Avatar,” America’s favorite movie to hate, hit theaters and made 3-D the greatest fad since boy bands. 3-D can’t be projected through a regular projector, however, so theaters began converting completely to digital projectors.

Now, most theaters keep old movie projectors as relics with nothing to do. The theater I work at, which holds an area-most 19 screens, is completely digital. Two auditoriums have celluloid film projectors on standby, but they just collect dust.

Admittedly, when digital projection works, it’s outstanding. When I saw “The Social Network” on a digital print, I was amazed at how rich the visuals looked. Digital prints also require less work from projectionists, which saves movie theaters money. Theaters don’t need them to lace up and start the films anymore, and putting together the multiple reels of film that used to require constant splicing and taping is now reduced to a download and a few simple clicks.

The operative phrase in the last paragraph, however, is “when digital projection works.” Much like with any computer, glitches – the screen turning a pinkish tint and a faint red imprint are two common ones at the theater where I work – often happen at completely random intervals. And much like on your household computer or laptop, the problem is often hard to pinpoint.

Now, this isn’t to terrify audiences into staying home from theaters. Most of the common issues with digital projection can be fixed, and I would guess that a vast majority of digitally projected screenings run smoothly.

However, it seems remarkably hasty to make regular film projectors obsolete so fast. We live in an age in which we all want the hottest, latest technology to make our entertainment run faster and better. But in the hectic digital revolution, we dive in headfirst without checking to make sure there’s something to break our fall. We discard the old without realizing it might still have merit.

I’m not crying out for the death of digital film. I just ask for a bit more balance so no more movies stop before they can even start.