Smaller theatres, such as this one in Madison, Wisconsin, are shutting down right and left as they cannot afford to upgrade to digital projectors.

One unconsidered victim of the digital transition in exhibition practices has been local drive-in movie theatres, such as this one in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which will soon close permanently. The situation was so intense for awhile that Honda sponsored “Project Drive-In” during the summer of 2013—a contest designed to help the lucky few afford the new projectors.

The concealed economic histories of Hugo gets us to the heart of the matter. Méliès did not go out of business due to changing sensibilities after WWI, In fact, he’d already gone under before the outbreak of war. What cost him was the unscrupulous behavior of more powerful competitors, such as the so-called “Father of Cinema,” Thomas Edison, who in addition to winning copyright and distribution battles with his team of top-notch lawyers also bootlegged the French filmmaker’s work for U.S. distribution without compensation.



DCP and the digital divide

There are any number of areas where digital innovation raises long-term economic questions—if not for the studios necessarily. With the exception of online distribution (which involves minimal costs), the savings in going digital generally have not “trickled down” to paying moviegoers, film archives, animation/VFX workers, the free labor of participatory culture, and so on. Upstart filmmakers benefit in the short-term, but also find themselves in an increasingly crowded late capitalist marketplace that inversely puts a decreasing economic value on their labor. Narratives of inevitability, such as in The Artist, seek to naturalize the shock of a sudden change which is quietly driven by determined but arbitrary market forces. Writing on the “onrush to digital conversion” over the last few years, James Quandt has pointed out that

“late capitalism has taught us that inevitability is often a disguise or excuse for commercial coercion, and there is a whiff of intimidation in the accompanying terminology (e.g., ‘digital complaint’).”[19]
[open endnotes in new window]

This coercion, moreover, had led to a deepening digital divide between those with the resources to profit from the transition and those who many not even have the resources to survive.

On that note, I’d like to explore the recent conversion to digital theatrical exhibition which has swept through movie theatres in just the last few years at a time of both digital distribution and, with it, often more solitary viewings. It’s an all the more appropriate site for analysis, given that both The Artist and Hugo’s respective nostalgia for film history also implicitly promotes nostalgia for the imagined good old days of theatrical movie-going. In 2002, six major Hollywood studios collaborated to standardize the technology underlining the future of digital projection. The result was the “Digital Cinema Initiatives” (DCI), intended

“to ensure the quality, compatibility, and security of the digital exhibition of their films.”[20]

This eventually appeared in the form of the Digital Cinema Package (DCP)—where several bulky film canisters are now replaced withlarge disks containing all the information needed to screen the movie, saved as encrypted files, inserted directly to the digital projector.

A Digital Cinema Package (DCP) — a large jump drive that contains all the information needed for screening the latest Hollywood blockbuster. While offering a cleaner, more resilient, picture to audiences, it also has had a negative impact economically on labor in relation to shipping, screening and maintenance costs — and one whose long-term costs remain to be seen.

Going forward, movie theatres would need the compatible hardware in place to screen the latest digital titles. There’s certainly a historical echo here from the early days of cinema. The move to make 35mm film production and exhibition technology the industry standard co-existed with the patent wars that grew out of this standardization. Creating one universal technology allowed the powers that be to control the market going forward. Moreover, it is this industrial history that directly intertwines with the nostalgic mythologies in Hugo.

The industry-wide push by the studios for digital projection was far more economic in intention than aesthetic. While popular discourses around this new innovation visibly promoted the idea of a flawless digital image with no tears, scratches or other forms of degradation over time, the real reasons involved combatting piracy and saving money on distribution costs that did not translate to savings for anyone else—neither for paying customers nor for the low-end movie theatres without the resources of the major multiplexes. “The shift to digital promised a tremendous savings for the studios,” writes Lisa Dombrowski,

IHS Screen Digest estimates digital will produce an 80 per cent savings on direct releasing costs [. . .] (a digital print costs between $100 and $300, while a 35mm print averages $1200 to $2000 more).”[21]

The novelty of Digital 3D exhibition, so central to Hugo’s promotion and critical reception, was largely a means to force the issue of DCP conversion. Criticisms of 3D, especially post-conversion jobs, eventually crept in as increasingly bad movies (2010’s Clash of the Titans) further exploited the gimmick. It seemed a cheap excuse to charge higher ticket prices, and a strain on the eyes to watch. Yet these valid critiques were a distraction from the real issue.

The backlash to 3D digital exhibition was swift and strong, as audiences quickly began to reject the inflated prices and considerable eye-strain and headache inducement, particularly related to cheap post-conversion jobs like Clash of the Titans, which was not originally shot in 3D.

In retrospect, as Thomas Elsaesser notes,  

“once the technology has been installed and amortized via a season of successful 3D films, it does not matter whether 3D is a big screen mainstay, or a niche product.”[22]

In just a couple of years, digital projection for both 2D and 3D movies became the industry standard—thanks in part to but certainly not dependent upon either the passing novelty or future sustainability of the latter.

That conversion has come at a great cost—especially for independent theatres, art cinemas and drive-ins that could not afford the transition (this was also, of course, part of the point, as both studios and major theatre chains benefit from driving out competition). “Virtual Print Fee” (VPF) financing, where third party loans were used to offset some of the costs for digital upgrading,

“was designed by the major studios to assist their primary exhibition partners—first-run commercial multiplexes that debut studio features in rapid succession.”[23]

Even then, the VPF loan system does not take into account the long-term maintenance and upgrade costs of digital projectors:

“the ultimate pricetag of digital equipment is hidden to exhibitors right now. Little expenses add up. [. . .] And digital is notoriously temperamental.”[24]

Chain multiplexes could afford upgrades since they could disperse costs through financing plans and the income of thousands of screens. In contrast, first-run-dependent commercial single or dual screen cinemas often faced an impossible burden which led to many shutting down, especially as access to 35mm prints became increasingly rare on their own, even as some art cinemas found creative ways to survive.[25]

What the age of digital cinema has brought to theatrical exhibition is further economic disparity—and rising costs for consumers and disadvantaged competitors despite supposed financial savings such innovations brought. As Dombrowski writes,

“Non-DCI-compliant forms of digital cinema—known as ‘e-cinema’—are much more common in art houses than [the compliant] d-cinema, creating a digital divide between those theatres that are DCI-complaint and able to screen films from all distributors, and those that are not.”[26]

In discussing the economic impact of DCP on independent and art cinemas, Dombrowski is understandably ambivalent, given that some have managed to survive on low cost alternatives, such as screening Blu-Ray discs, while also allowing indie filmmakers to screen movies born digital without the financial burdens of converting them to 35mm prints or compliant DC packages. Still, her closing question is worth repeating:

“If d-cinema [DCI-complaint] does become uniform across the entire motion picture industry, will it lower costs after the end of VPFs place the major studios and independents, the multiplexes and the art houses on more equal footing, or will the majors’ oligopolistic control continue to dictate terms of the marketplace?”[27]

The long-term uncertainty of this profound inequality, of a “digital divide” that exists beyond just theatre economics, is troubling. While a benefit of DCP might be “freeing staff to spend more time with customers and less time in the projection booth,” it seems more likely to leave that staff unemployed, perceived as a wasteful redundancy in a steadily shrinking labor force. They will end up just like the union projectionist whose job once upon a time was to splice together the feature film celluloid print with the trailers shipped separately (all the material that now comes pre-loaded on a DCP drive). As Clover’s insightful reading of The Artist and Hugo implied, the hidden truth behind the euphemism of “saving money” is that we are really talking about cutting people’s jobs—but bottom lines don’t have a face. Studios and other powerful businesses in the film industry are not looking to hire more workers in the wake of digital innovations that might save money. Even in filmmaking communities inside and outside Hollywood, a conservative myth is frustratingly persistent that lowering costs will somehow improve our collective financial future, rather than continue to put a strain on our overall economic well-being.

Hugo and the all-fantasy genre

“Other filmmakers rely less upon special effects and fantasy; there are scores of directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Stephen Frears, John Sayles, Paul Schrader, and Mike Leigh, who make films about more or less realistically conceived characters in more or less realistic settings. There is no reason for the digital fantasies of sci-fi to drive an industry that, since the sci-fi blockbusters of the late 1970s and early '80s, has become increasingly diverse in terms of narrative content. Indeed, the danger is that an all-digital cinema might very well lead to an all-fantasy cinema—to essentially one genre.”
—John Belton, “Digital Cinema: A False Revolution?”[28]

Over a decade ago, responding to George Lucas’ proclamations of an all-digital future, Belton wrote a teachable article on the long-term implications of the transition from celluloid to digital cinema. Belton focused on the long-term industrial realities and limitations regarding the new medium’s ambitions, as well as on the fundamental ways in which digital cinema often aspires to do little more creatively than simply emulate film’s existing theatrical experience—hence, as he coined, “a false revolution.” For Belton, the creative temptation existed for some filmmakers to explore more fantastical plots and settings. In this regard, Scorsese’s subsequent Hugo emerges as the most perfectly realized dream or nightmare to arise from Belton’s observation about the move to an “all-fantasy genre.” In ways both more obvious but also more subtle than The Artist, Hugo is a postmodern nostalgia film which conflates history with cinematic mediations of that past. The movie’s cinephiliac references to Lumière and Jean Renoir, as Elsaesser wrote, balances

“the director’s homage to (French) film culture and cinephilia with a somewhat more ambiguous appropriation of Méliès’ genius as the ‘precursor’ of Hollywood’s 3D revival. [. . . ] [I]t also hints at a paradigm shift in the way we might come to look at 3D itself [. . .] fitting for an age when cinema (and television) history is likely to become the only history our culture has an affective memory of.”[29]

Like its auteurist overseer, Hugo is a champion both of shooting on digital video and of the literal and symbolic preservation of old films (with slightly less attention to film history). It is also an all-out digital 3D spectacle that, as Belton feared, exists in large measure to show off the legendary auteur’s skills with a new array of digital tools. Scorsese’s status as canonical filmmaker, in return, adds greater artistic credibility to the all-pervasive but much critically maligned fantasy film genre, as well as to the highlighted novelty of 3D filmmaking. Employing the latest innovations in high-definition cinematography (ARRI Alexa), visual/sound effects work, and 3D exhibition, Hugo presents viewers with an impossibly perfect vision of 1930s Paris—a digital landscape more akin to an idealized painting than its faithful (and mechanical) reproduction as a photograph.

Hugo presents to us an impossibly beautiful vision of Paris in the 1930s — a nostalgic idealization more evocative of a digital painting than a faithfully reproduced photograph.

Within that digital vision is a larger romance with the legacy of the machine age—for a pre-digital era of materiality when we could physically see how things worked, for that glorious glimpse of modernity’s potential, which came and went somewhere between 1931 and 2011. Thus, what’s striking in Hugo are not simply the lush 3D visuals, but the consistent fetishization of machines and their moving parts—clocks, trains, wind-up toys, hand-cranked movie projectors, and of course the cherished automaton, which represents the last material link between a boy and his deceased father.

The Automaton represents Hugo’s ultimate nostalgia for the machine age — even though ironically its movement is generated entirely by profilmic and postfilmic computers.

This plot element refers to real automata from the 19th Century—elaborate robotic dolls that, with the precise timing of various weights, gears and other mechanisms, came to life by mimicking basic tasks such as writing words or playing music. The movement of the actual automaton in Hugo was really generated by both pro-filmic and post-production computer work, giving only the visual effect of pre-digital mechanization. It’s a sad irony worth pursuing. The robot in Hugo, a nostalgic throwback to the possibilities of the machine age, was a careful computer effect, and the elaborate artwork created by this particular automaton (a drawn “still” from Méliès’ Voyage to the Moon)far surpassed the actual capacities of those devices historically.

The meticulous drawing of a still from Voyage to the Moon (1902) far surpassed the abilities of a real automaton.

Hugo’s tenuous relationship to anything resembling historical accuracy is easy to overlook. After all, the brilliance of Hugo’s digital homage to Méliès is based partially on the magical idea that he was the first filmmaker to understand cinema’s capacity to deceive the eye (jump cuts). Appeals to historical fidelity seem even more irrelevant given the movie’s own narrative ambitions as little more than a fantastical kid’s fable. However, a key point of Hollywood’s embrace of fantasy ideologically in the digital age has been to close off space for criticism, a goal further intensified here with what could reasonably be deemed “only” a children’s movie.[30] In place of ideological critique, in place of history, is the story of undying love in Hugo that transcends space, time and technology—a generational nostalgia involving a father and son.

Hugo’s nostalgic vision is two-fold — a love of early film preservation efforts from the 1930s, and a love of the days of silent cinema. In real life, though, Méliès did not utilize color sets since everything was shot in B&W anyway.

What anchors Hugo for its most ardent cinephiliac fans is its deeply nostalgic affection for early cinema, for the era of innocent wonder that the days of Méliès and Lumière suggest. Hugo makes literal an otherwise symbolic connection between the “cinema of attractions” at the end of the 19th Century and an “all-fantasy cinema” at the end of the 20th (though it’s easy to be skeptical of this historical parallel). Scholars commonly use this to add historical perspective on the larger technological shift in cinema at the dawn of the digital age.[31] It’s unsurprising that upon Hugo’s release many cinephiles, historians and other film buffs delighted[32] in a digital spectacle which embraced 3D technology as a way to recreate landmark cinematic images—both literally (using restored Méliès prints in the new format) and symbolically (such as the many references to the Lumières’ L’arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat [“The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station”]).

The reference to L’arrivée d’un Train, of course, also included the infamous historical anecdote of naïve spectators who supposedly fled in terror at the cinematic sight of an oncoming train.

Certainly, one of Hugo’s most clever cinephiliac gags are the repeated references to one of early cinema’s most iconic films — the Lumière Brothers’ L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895).

Yet before sliding too far into Hugo’s nostalgic fantasy of movie history, the continued deployment of that particular historical anecdote itself should give pause. One of Tom Gunning’s key insights into early cinema history was to debunk the persistent claim that continues in some circles to this day that the earliest movie spectators were too dumb to distinguish silent, black and white moving images of a train from the presence of a real one, and thus panicked.[33] Hugo, meanwhile, re-mystifies that history more so than challenges it—especially by

  • altering that movie so that—when shown in 3D exhibition—the image of the train really does seem to come out of the screen,
  • depicting easily frightened past audiences (both in 1895 and 1931), and
  • celebrating cinema’s general affective potential to excess through its embrace of 3D aesthetics.

Ironically, Hugo’s playful 3D reference to one of early cinema’s most persistent myths—that of the terrified spectator that confused a movie of an oncoming train with the presence of a real one — ends up re-mystifying that story instead of challenging it — another nostalgic (and condescending) vision of a simpler time.

The curious reimagining of early cinema history is not nearly as pressing as Hugo’s main structuring absence: the emergent economic histories around Méliès’ rise and fall. While Hugo is reasonably accurate in its presentation of the film pioneer’s life, it obscures at least one important detail—his downfall wasn’t WWI, which brought different collective moods and logistical demands. What wiped Méliès out even before the outbreak of war was continually losing distribution battles with more powerful “pioneers” like Pathe Co. and Thomas Edison[34] and even his own brother, Gaston.[35] Méliès battled the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), the sheer output of others’ mass production as a result of standardized film technology,[36] and unscrupulous competition who pirated copies of his films for U.S. distribution without compensation.[37] Hugo overlooks the fact that Méliès’ waning popularity was as much due to questionable market practices as to the fading interest in his product’s novelty.

In this regard, both The Artist and Hugo follow in a long line of films about technical innovation in Hollywood such as Stand In or Singing in the Rain. These films reduce complex industrial questions to the usual Hollywood whims of random fate and individualism. Their characters are mere victims of unfortunate circumstances beyond anyone’s control (war, depression, market shifts, evolving sensibilities, changing technology), instead of encountering the very real institutional and legal contexts that go unacknowledged. To be clear, my interest is not historical fidelity as much as how film histories are selectively re-told through pastiche, and what’s at stake in the nostalgic fantasy (in both senses of the word) presented in its place. The historical carelessness befits an industry that has no interest in criticizing ambitions for global market domination. For Hollywood to criticize Edison would mean criticizing itself, particularly today, as studios push for digital exhibition to squeeze out piracy and independent competitors, and embrace “transmedia storytelling” (books, records, games, etc.) to maximize the corporate imperative and market reach of horizontal integration. Certainly, complicated legal and industrial histories are not the ideal subject matter for a kid’s film, but the point is precisely that Hollywood hides ideologically behind the seeming “innocence” of such fantastical indulgences all the time. So, when looking at a kid’s movie like Hugo—enveloped in the ideological safety net of a particular market demographic, in cinephiliac nostalgia and in auteurist prestige—we aren’t meant to notice the dialectical history being erased.

This is the core of postmodern pastiche—which is not merely the constant re-appropriation of random cinematic styles for their own sake, but the deliberate de-politicizing of the economic histories they avoid. At best, as with The Artist’s reenactment of the 1929 market crash, technological and cultural change is presented as an inevitable and thus unopposable force, something that just “is,” which no one can do much about except to reject or embrace—like the recent push to digital projection in theatrical exhibition.

The ultimate Capitalist myth at the heart of The Artist — the 1929 stock market crash was a random, unforeseen disaster over which no one, including Valentin, had any control over, instead of the product of excessive, irresponsible business practices which could have been addressed by collective action — not by his newfound ability to dance.

These movies passively suggest that Valentin and Méliès’ respective careers are threatened due to forces beyond their control. This befits a Hollywood industry that resists creative and economic opposition and that wishes to imagine “no future”of opposition or alternatives. Hollywood’s “seamless” style and “natural” ideologies are designed to survive precisely by going unquestioned and even unnoticed. In the most cynical (though not only) conception of nostalgia’s value, it’s not the lack of historical accuracy—it’s the absence of a material opposition to the image necessary to defining “historical consciousness,” which a more sustained attention to industry and audience histories, as just two examples, might provide.

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