The Dematerialization of Movie Film

Dematerialization refers to the reduction in the quantity of materials required to accomplish a function in society. In sustainability terms, dematerialization refers to the replacement of a high-resource/waste activity with a lower-impact one. ICT has become a powerful dematerialization force, evidenced, for example, by how it has replaced physical mail with electronic mail. The US theatrical release of a major motion picture only in digital marks another phase in media dematerialization.

We noted several years ago that consumer media distribution was becoming dematerialized as digital downloads replaced CDs and streaming replaced DVDs. Now we are seeing this play out in theatrical distribution.

Moives were traditionally distributed on film in the form of 'release prints', which cost over $2000 each to make and ship. A major motion picture could open on as many as 3,000 screens simultaneously, resulting in the creation, shipment, and destruction* of as many release prints. Film manufacturing and processing is very industrial. I was struck by how much a Hollywood film lab resembled a hazardous chemical factory when I first visited one.

'Digital cinema' - the digital delivery and projection of movies - has been around for over a decade, but the expense of retro-fitting theaters had slowed its progress. Now, ~92% of America's 40,000+ screens have digital projection. I was not surprised to see the Los Angeles Times report in January 2014, "In a historic step for Hollywood, Paramount Pictures has become the first major studio to stop releasing movies on film in the United States...The studio’s Oscar-nominated film 'The Wolf of Wall Street' from director Martin Scorsese is the first major studio film that was released all digitally..." The Wall Street Journal noted that 'Gravity' had earlier opened in 3,000 locations but Warner Bros. shipped only 200 release prints.

The cost savings are dramatic, as presented by The Wall Street Journal in that April 2014 article. "The estimated cost of film per print is now around $2,000. A digital print cost is about $120 to copy and ship." That difference yields savings of over $5 million on a single 3,000-screen release.

As we noted when writing about postal mail, dematerialization is not without its economic disruption. According to that LA Times report, "Last month, Technicolor, the French-owned film processing and post-production company, closed a film lab in Glendale. That lab had replaced a much larger facility at Universal Studios that employed 360 workers until it closed in 2011. Also last year, Technicolor closed its Pinewood film lab in Britain."

The New York Times in a March 2015 article offered another striking example of dematerialization of an industry trying to cope. "Commercial film is a dwindling business. The 11.4 billion linear feet of film Kodak manufactured as late as 2007, enough to circle the earth about 88 times, has shrunk 96 percent...Supported by directors such as Quentin Tarantino and J. J. Abrams, [Kodak] reached an agreement with major Hollywood studios to continue buying Kodak movie film for several years. " The film covered by this agreement is for 'digital cinematography', the capture of movie scene, and is driven by aesthetic concerns. The bulk of Kodak's movie film production was for digital cinema and that continues to erode at a rapid rate.

On the upside, the healthcare industry is also seeing the sustainability benefits of the dematerialization of film.

* The polyester film base can be recycled.