A sting in the Tail

Transcript of podcast below.

Film makers are gradually shifting to digital video because it’s flexible and cheap. I should re-phrase that last comment – it’s certainly flexible but is it cheap?

I was surprised to discover that making a digital film may cost about the same amount as making a conventional film. Now there is a healthy debate about which format costs more and many creative professionals opt for digital formats because of it’s undoubted flexibility, and depending on the director cost of the medium may be a secondary consideration.

But what happens to all this content once it’s been produced, the audience has watched it, enjoyed the popcorn and has left the cinema? Well that’s where there’s a sting in the tail for the film industry.

You see film and television companies know that a film, once made, may have a very long life after it’s initial showing. All the company has to do is to store the original master copy somewhere safe, bringing it out from time to time for a re-release or repeat showing.

And here’s where this story acquires a digital sting – it’s all in the storage. It’s been reported that digital content costs 12 times more to store than conventional film. It gets worse if the production is digital end to end, where it could be up to 200 times more expensive! So why the large difference in cost?

To store old-fashioned celluloid film all that’s needed is a nice cool storage space, some shelving and a label on the tin for identification. Digital film storage involves backup tape, hard drives or a combination of the two. It sounds pretty simple doesn’t it? But there’s a problem, over time digital content needs migration successor generations of storage media because digital media degrades at an alarming rate, compared to celluloid film (or for that matter paper). On top of that there is the danger of digital media becoming unreadable should data storage formats change, which they do more frequently than you’d think.

It’s an ironic thing isn’t it? The cost of making a digital production might be apparently cheap up front but can, in the case of feature films and big budget productions, become quite significant over the years. For example the cost of storing a digital feature film for a decade might be in the region of $2 million, whilst conventional film would cost about $10,000, for the same time period. The price difference is enough to make a feature film, and store it, if shot on conventional film.

If the cost of storing digital media doesn’t come down sharply, and there aren’t many signs of that happening at the moment for film, it’s possible that very large amounts of creative output of the 21st century will simply disappear. We may end up with more extant films from the 1950’s than 2015, and with it the cultural footprint of a generation could disappear like smoke in a breeze.