Why the rich should now be made to pay

The architect of Tony Blair's 'third way' outlines 16 steps to a fairer Britain

Britain remains a society with too many inequalities, too many barriers to opportunity for those at the bottom. "Not enough redistribution!" say some. If only things were so simple. Redistribution there must be, but much more besides.

Average income in the UK has grown substantially since 1997 - 2.4 per cent a year to the end of 2005. London has had the highest rises. However, if differences in house prices are taken into account, there is far less variation between London and other areas in spending power. There has actually been considerable redistribution towards pensioners (a term I dislike), single parents and children. The proportion of older people living in poverty is smaller than the average for the population as a whole. In 1997 there were 13.8 million people living in poverty, as measured after housing costs, or 10.2 million before housing costs; these figures have fallen to 11.4 million and 9.2 million. A fifth of the population now lives below the poverty line (60 per cent of median income), compared to almost a quarter in 1997.

The government failed to meet its declared target of reducing child poverty by a quarter by the end of the financial year 2005. Although 700,000 children were lifted out of poverty, reducing the overall number to its lowest since the late 1980s, this figure was still 300,000 short of the target set.

Ministers pledged in 1998 that child poverty would be halved by 2011. If present polices are maintained, however, the level will not differ much from now on. Like other forms of poverty in Britain, child poverty is a relative measure. The government's target of "eliminating" child poverty by 2020 has not yet been clearly defined. Three countries in Europe have managed to achieve child poverty rates of just 5 per cent - Denmark, Norway and Finland - which is about as close as anyone could ever get. Yet even achieving a rate of less than 10 per cent would represent considerable success for British society. A significant change in policy is required, now, if the 2020 target is to be met.

Those on the old left seem to think it easy to reduce inequality: you take money from the rich and give it to the poor. Yet the rich, however defined, are a tiny minority. If they are to be taxed more, it should be for reasons other than just a little more redistribution, otherwise it would do virtually nothing to alleviate the structural problems that make the UK so unequal. Here are 16 policy areas that could make a difference.

1 Make reducing child poverty a driving force, as just mentioned.

2 Conventional redistributive mechanisms should stay in place, but they should be adjusted. Congestion charging and parking charges in cities, for instance, can be designed to have a progressive content - many poorer people do not own a car; the proceeds can be channelled into improving public transport; drivers of larger cars can be made to pay more.

3 Active labour-market policy (the New Deal and welfare-to-work) is important in reducing the disruptive effects of job loss. But because of rising levels of technological change and international competition, we need to explore policies that will help workers even before jobs start to be lost. The present policies are like throwing people into a pool to see if they can swim and helping them only once it is clear they can't. Far better to prepare them. The possibilities include using vouchers for in-work training for those in vulnerable industries, as part of an agreement to accept lower wages for a period. Such schemes, usually involving employers, unions and the government, are already being pioneered in some European countries. In Austria, work foundations have been set up to provide a network of resources for workers who become redundant. Where a company is forced to lay off large numbers of workers, those who stay in their jobs make a contribution as a gesture of solidarity. The company makes a larger overall donation. Those who lose their jobs contribute half their redundancy payments. The state also provides support for retraining and job search.

Helping hand

4 We should start to think of employment or wage insurance. Two-thirds of workers who lose their jobs earn lower wages when they find new work. Wage insurance would replace a substantial proportion of lost earnings for up to two years. A pilot version exists in the US. Under the programme, workers have to show that they lost their jobs as a result of trade competition, be over the age of 50, make less than $50,000 in a new job, and be re-employed within six months of being made redundant.

5 On average, older people in Britain have become better-off since 1997, but 17 per cent still live below the poverty line. We should aim to get to 60:60 - 60 per cent or more of those over the age of 60 in work, in full-time or part-time jobs.

6 People who live in embedded poverty may have few skills, have problems with drugs, fall into a life of crime and find it hard to sustain lasting relationships. The experience since 1997 shows that policies based on benefits or tax credits have little impact, partly because of low levels of take-up. An important approach is intervention targeted at the very young. Research shows that, at the age of two or three, children can establish behaviour patterns that are very difficult to break. Another factor is housing. About 50,000 people nationally, who might otherwise be on the streets, live in hostels or temporary accommodation, but these people cannot find more permanent homes. There are also large numbers of "hidden homeless", who are sleeping on the floors of friends or family members. The government has invested millions in repairing existing council houses, but more social housing is the only feasible solution for those at the bottom.

7 Research shows that even owning a small amount of capital can make an important difference in life. People who own assets at the age of 23 generally earn more ten years later than those without them, even when income, class and gender are taken out of the equation. The government's Child Trust Fund pays £250 to every child at birth. Children from poorer backgrounds get double that sum. The fund is topped up when the child is seven; again, there is more money for poorer children. The child cannot touch the money - nor can the parents - before he or she reaches 18. Surveys show that poorer parents appreciate this scheme.

8 Poverty is an endemic condition for some, but there is also far more movement in and out of poverty than we used to think. We should recognise that much poverty is biographical. People fall into poverty through specific life events and episodes, such as divorce or the break-up of a relationship, leaving the parental home, illness or, of course, losing a job. It follows that we should not concentrate policy solely on those who are poor at any one time, but upon those just above the poverty line.

9 The relationship between work and non-work has grown more complex. We should think of policy more in terms of the lifespan, rather than the here and now. This means seeing employment differently from the way we did in the past - as a temporary state or an expression of long-term employability. A guiding ideal, for both sexes, might be a 30-hour working week over the entire career of the in dividual, with various interruptions or career breaks and allowance for part-time work.

10 The Women and Work Commission found that the gap between the pay of men and women working full-time in 2005 was 17 per cent in hourly pay rates. Although this has closed somewhat, there are several reasons why women still tend to lose out, all of which could be eased by policy intervention.

11 Two-thirds of those claiming Pension Credit are women. At the moment, 85 per cent of men are entitled on retirement to a full basic state pension, compared to 30 per cent of women; only 24 per cent of women have that entitlement on the basis of their own contributions. The government has introduced a new contributory principle, but it will not do much to help in the immediate future. The pension system, moreover, remains extraordinarily complex.

12 Lifestyle changes are starting to influence inequalities a great deal - not just reflect them - especially in health. The remedies here will have to be behavioural rather than simply economic. It has been found, for example, that improving the diet of children with special needs, and combining this with exercise, significantly improves their attitudes and attainment.

13 Giving an effective choice of school to parents from poorer backgrounds must be backed by further policy strategies. One indicator of underprivilege is entitlement to free school meals. Just 3 per cent of pupils at the best-performing state schools fall into this category - showing the extent of "middle-class capture", but also that the pre-existing system was not fair. The average nationally is 17 per cent. The government has made some innovations to try to reverse this. The new school code suggests introducing a lottery-type admission system, to stop parents gaining admission for their children by buying houses nearby. Some city academies already operate random allocation policies, ensuring that certain children from poor backgrounds get a place. The new code is mandatory and will cover anyone applying to state schools in 2008, but other policies must be explored.

14 Labour has largely left private schools alone. Gordon Brown says he wants to increase spending on state schools to the level of private ones. That is a laudable intention, but it can't be realised overnight. Some effort has been made to oblige private schools to show social responsibility. In the UK, the private system is explicitly geared to providing advantages for the sons and daughters of those already advantaged. And it works: 48 per cent of students at Cambridge attended a private school, and 45 per cent of those at Oxford, although only 7 per cent of the population as a whole is educated at such schools. The government has been reluctant to support the scheme pioneered by the philanthropist Peter Lampl, but it should show more interest. The Belvedere School in Liverpool is private. Lampl has given funds to help it operate blind-needs admission. Anyone who qualifies for entry is guaranteed a place, regardless of financial circumstances. The scheme has been a remarkable success, with children from a wide range of backgrounds represented at the Belvedere.

15 Universities could look at a scheme originally introduced, somewhat surprisingly, in Texas, and now taken up in France. In 1997 the state of Texas introduced a policy whereby all students graduating in the top 10 per cent of their class in high school are guaranteed university entrance. As a result, the proportion of students from poorer backgrounds and minorities has grown steadily. Evidence so far shows that students admitted in this way perform as well academically as those accepted in the usual fashion. It is easier to apply the idea in France than in the UK, because of the centralised nature of French higher education. Yet either the government, or universities themselves, could agree to pilot a similar scheme in a city or region.

16 Finally, what about the rich? What about the way corporate leaders' salaries have been pulling away from those of their employees? What about the City high-flyers making millions in salaries and bonuses? Should Labour, as Peter Mandelson once remarked, be "relaxed about people getting filthy rich"? No!

Assets for a few

Labour can no longer be against entrepreneurs, the driving forces of economic success. But becoming wealthy should carry with it social obligations, such as to give something back to society, to pay tax in full, and to encourage social and environmental responsibility within companies. For several decades after the Second World War, the ratio of top executives' earnings to average income was stable. In the 1980s, it began to accelerate away and has not stopped since.

There is no official richness line in the same way as there is a poverty line. Let's say arbitrarily that "the rich" are the top 0.05 per cent. Labour should consider introducing a wealth tax of the kind found in some other countries. Wealth is more unequally distributed than income, with a high concentration in the hands of a few. The economist Edward Wolff has suggested for the United States a system based on the Swiss model. Assets would be taxed annually, according to a steeply progressive scale. Those with assets under a specific threshold would not pay, with steeper rates cutting in at, say, £1m in assets. This system would generate about 1 per cent of total revenue - more than would be achieved in the UK if income tax were raised to 50 per cent for people earning more than £100,000. It would be easy to administer, Wolff says, because it could be fully integrated with personal income tax.

The proceeds of such a tax, if implemented here, should not go into the Treasury coffers, but be devoted to a specific purpose - for example, helping children from underprivileged backgrounds get into higher education. Those contributing substantial sums to charity could be absolved from the tax.

Reducing tax evasion and getting rid of the loopholes that make widespread tax avoidance possible should be priorities - as far as possible on an international as well as a national level. The Conservatives have talked about abolishing inheritance tax, but the strategy should be to make it more progressive. At present only 6 per cent of inherited wealth is taken in tax. A steeper rate at the top (in addition, again, to keeping control of loopholes) would be fairer and would generate more revenue (the Budget made some changes in this direction).

Philanthropy is clearly one of the main responsibilities of high earners, because they should give back to the society that has helped them realise their opportunities. In the US, top earners in effect pay a voluntary tax on their earnings, and large numbers accept the obligation. Some prominent figures have given away virtually their whole fortune, especially towards the end of their lives. There is not the same culture of philanthropy in this country, and despite the introduction of tax incentives, there is not yet the same level of tax breaks.

In October, top managers at Siemens in Germany were awarded a pay rise of 30 per cent. The company was in the middle of restructuring, and many workers stood to lose their jobs. Most of the workforce had already accepted pay cuts through agreements that reduced their hours of work. Faced with an uproar, the executives announced that they would donate their pay rises to help workers in a subsidiary whose jobs were threatened. In Britain, the management might have been praised for keeping the company on an even keel in the face of overseas competition. Our business culture needs to change.

"We must show that . . . we will be a party that is for working people, not rich and powerful vested interests." Who said this? Not Tony Blair, not Gordon Brown, but David Cameron. Labour should take note.

Anthony Giddens's new book, "Over to You, Mr Brown: how Labour can win again", is published by Polity (£9.99, paperback)

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

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Can celluloid lovers like Christopher Nolan stop a digital-only future for film?

Despite proponents like the Dunkirk director, physical film is finding it tough in the modern age. 

“Chris Nolan is one of the few producing and directing films right now who could open that film. He is one of the all-time great filmmakers.”

No prizes for guessing which new release Vue CEO Tim Richards is talking about. Aside from its box office success, aside from its filmmaking craft, aside even from its early reception as an Oscar favourite, Dunkirk sees Nolan doing what Nolan does best: he has used his latest film to reopen the debate about celluloid.

Until relatively recently all film was projected from that old, classic medium of the film reel - a spool of celluloid run in front of a projector bulb throwing images on to a screen. It comes mainly in two forms: 35mm (standard theatrical presentations) or 70mm (larger, more detailed presentations most popular in the 60s and 70s). Fans say it provides a “warmer” colour palette, with more depth and saturation than modern digital formats.

But now it’s hard to even see movies on film to make the comparison. After George Lucas, godfather of the Star Wars franchise, shot Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones entirely in digital rather than on physical film, the rollout of digital progressed with clinical efficacy. Within ten years, film was almost wiped out, deemed to be impractical and irrelevant. Modern cinema, it was argued, could be stored in a hard drive.

Christopher Nolan set out to change all that. He championed film as a medium against the industry trend, producing (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar) in super-detailed, super-sized IMAX 70mm. With Dunkirk, Nolan has taken that further by screening the film in 35mm, 70mm and IMAX 70mm.

Nolan is not the medium's only poster boy – it is symbolic that the new Star Wars trilogy, 15 years on from Attack’s groundbreaking digital filming, is now being shot on film once more. This summer, Dunkirk may well be seeing the biggest rollout of a 70mm presentation in cinemas for 25 years, but in 2015 Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight saw chains and independent cinemas having to retrofit 21st Century cinemas for a 20th Century presentation style. It was a difficult process, with only a handful of screens able to show the film as Tarantino intended – but it was a start.

Today, celluloid is, ostensibly, looking healthier. A recent deal struck between Hollywood big wigs and Kodak has helped. Kodak will now supply celluloid to Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Sony. It’s a deal which is not only helping keep Kodak afloat, but also film alive.

Kodak has also gone a step further, launching an app to help audiences find 35mm screenings in local cinemas. Called ‘Reel Film’, it endeavours to back Nolan and co in ensuring that celluloid is still a viable method of film projection in the 21st century.

Even so, whether Nolan’s film fightback has actually had any impact is unclear. Independent cinemas still screen in film, and certainly Vue and Odeon both have film projectors in some of their flagship screens, but digital dominates. Meanwhile, key creatives are pushing hard for a digital future: Peter Jackson, James Cameron and the creative teams at Marvel are all pioneering in digital fields. Whether or not film can survive after over a decade of effacement is a difficult – and surpisingly emotionally charged – question.

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Paul Vickery, Head of Programming at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, is the kind of person you might expect to talk all about how physical film is a beautiful medium, key for preserving the history of cinema. History, he tells me, is important to the Prince Charles, but it's a surprise when he saysfilm is actually more practical for their operation. Because not every film they screen has been digitised, access to old reels is essential for their business.

“If you completely remove film as an option for presentation as a cinema that shows older films,” he says, “you effectively cut 75 per cent of the films that you could possibly show out of your options, and you can only focus on those that have been digitised.”

Vickery says the debate around film and digital often neglects the practicality of film. “It's always focusing on the idea of the romance of seeing films on film, but as much as it is that, it's also to have more options, to present more films. You need to be able to show them from all formats.”

That’s a key part of what makes the Prince Charles Cinema special. Sitting in London's movie-premier hub Leicester Square, the Prince Charles is renowned for its celluloid presentations of older films and has made a successful business out of its 35mm and 70mm screenings of both classics and niche films.

“If there is the option to show film and digital, we tend to take film as the option because it's also something you can't replicate at home,” he explains. “It's also just the nature of how film is seen on screen: its image clarity, its colour palette, the sound is just something that's very different to digital, and I think that's something that's very worth saving.

“Not many people have 35mm projectors at home. If you have it on Blu-Ray or DVD, to see it on film is a way of dragging someone out from their house to come and see it at the cinema.”

Currently screening is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm. It’s an incredible presentation of what Vickery says is a seven or eight year-old print struck from the film’s original negatives: the colour of the picture is far richer, while the fine detail in some close-up shots is on par with modern movies. Even more impressive, though, is that the screening is packed. “Fifteen years ago, there would be cinemas where that would be almost on a circuit,” laments Vickery. “We've just stayed the course, and that's something that's just fallen away and we're one of the last, along with the BFI, to show films from film.

“There’s still a bit kicking around, but as we do more and more of it, we seem to be pulling out those people who are looking for that and they seem to be coming back again and again. The repertory side of our programme is more popular than ever.”

That popularity is seemingly reflected in its audiences’ passion for celluloid. Vickery tells me that the PCC’s suggestions board and social media are always filled with requests for film screenings, with specific questions about the way it’s being projected.

For Vickery, it’s a mark of pride. “It sounds like inflated ego almost,” he begins, as if providing a disclaimer, “but it's why I think the work we do and the BFI do and any cinema that shows films from film is about history. By us continuing to show film on film, studios will continue to make their film print available and keep them going out. If people stop showing films on film, they'd just get rid of them.

“Once they're all gone, they only way we're ever gonna be able to see them is if they're taking these films and digitising them, which as you imagine, is always going to be the classic set of films, and then there'll be very select ones will get picked, but it's not gonna be every film.

“You have to keep showing films from film to keep the history of cinema alive in cinemas.”

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History is something that the BFI is committed to preserving. 40 per cent of their annual programming is projected on celluloid, and they loan around 200 prints to venues each year. Their new “BFI 2022” initiative will produce 100 new film prints in the next five years.

Most recently they have focussed on safeguarding their archive, the BFI’s creative director Heather Stewart tells me when we meet her in her office in the BFI’s artsy offices just off Tottenham Court Road.

“We got money from the government to renew our storage which was a big deal because the national collection really wasn't safe,” she says  “There was work at risk because it was warm and humid and we have bought a fantastic, sub-zero state of the art storage facility in Warwickshire in our big site there and our negatives are there. So our master materials are all in there safe - all the nitrate negatives and all that. In 200 years, people will be able to come back and make materials from those, whether digitising or analogue.”

Stewart tells me that it’s important to do both: “Do we at the BFI think that audiences need to see films in the way the filmmaker intended? Yes. That's not going away - that's what we're here for. Do we want as many audiences as possible to see the film? Yes. So of course we're interested in digital.”

The restoration and printing project is attracting lots of “international interest” according to Stewart: just one example is that the BFI are looking into partnering with Warner Bros in their labs in Burbank, California.

“We're becoming the only place left that actually loans film prints around the world so that you can see the films the way they were intended,” she says. “So if you don't have any kind of renewal programme, you'll eventually just have blanked out, scratchy old prints and you can't see them."

They're getting financial support too, she says: “There are people like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson [director of Oscar-winner There Will Be Blood whose 2012 film The Master was shot and screened in 70mm], a lot of people who are very committed to film, and so there's conversations going on elsewhere and with the film foundation about bringing other investments in so we can really go for it and have a fantastic collection of great great 35mm prints for audiences to look at.”

As a fan of the film reel, Stewart is passionate about this. I put to her the common suggestion that lay audiences can’t tell the difference between screening on film, and digital. “I don't agree with that", she says. "If you sit with people and look at it, they feel something that you might not be able to articulate.

“It's the realism the film gives you - that organic thing, the light going through the film is not the same as the binary of 0s and 1s. It's a different sensation. Which isn't to say that digital is 'lesser than', but it's a different effect. People know. They feel it in their bodies, the excitement becomes more real. There's that pleasure of film, of course but I don't want to be too geeky about it.”

Yet not every film print available is in good condition. “There's a live discussion,” says Stewart. “Is it better to show a scratched 35mm print of some great film, or a really excellent digital transfer?”

There’s no neat answer.

But Stewart is certainly driven by the idea of presenting films as closely as possible to the filmmakers’ true vision. “If you're interested in the artwork,” she explains, “that's what the artwork has to look like, and digital will be an approximation of that. If you spend a lot of money, and I mean really a lot of money, it can be an excellent approximation of that. But lots of digital transfers are not great - they're cheap. They're fine, but they're never going to be like the original.”

The process of restoration doesn’t end with digitisation. Keeping film copies in order to have originals is hugely important given how quickly digital media change. Film is a constant form of storage which does not alter. As Stewart defiantly puts it, “all archives worldwide are on the same page and the plan is to continue looking after analogue, so it ain't going anywhere.”

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The BFI were kind enough put on a display of how film projection works in practice. Tina McFarling, Media Advisor, and Dominic Simmons, Head of Technical, provide a tour of two screens at BFI Southbank. Chatting in the projection room above the screen which hosted the 70mm première of Dunkirk, their passion for celluloid was on display.

Standing next to two mammoth 70mm projectors, Simmons talks through the real-terms use of film, and the technical expertise behind it. “It's a lot more labour intensive than sticking digital prints on, but it's something we want to do,” he says.

One of the projection booths at the BFI

During the visit, the team are prepping a rare 35mm screening of the documentary I Am Cuba to be shown that afternoon. Simmons says that operating a celluloid projector is a “more complex operation” than digital. Looking at the endless labyrinth of film and sprockets, it's easy to believe.

“If you're screening from film in a cinema,” he says, “then you need engineers, technicians who are capable of doing it, whereas a lot of multiplexes have deskilled their operation.”

Simmons says that, while larger chains have one engineer to oversee every screen with the actual process of running the films centralised with a centre loading playlists, the BFI has twenty-two technicians, each closely overseeing the projection of a film when on duty.

“There's so much about the different elements of the presentation that you need to know that all comes together with the sound, the lighting and the rest of it.

“When you're starting a film, it's more of a manual operation. Someone needs to be there to press the buttons at the right time, manage the sound, operate the curtains, and attach the trailers to the feature.”

Having skilled operators is all very well, but of course you need to have the equipment to operate in the first place. “We have to make sure that the equipment is kept and utilised as well as making sure the prints are available, and then the skills will follow”, he says.

Simmons says many are likening the film fight back to vinyl’s resurrection, but has a rueful smile when he talks about film being described as “hipsterish” and “boutiquey”.

He also points out that the quaint touches that make film attractive to this new, younger audience – blemishes, the occasional scratch – are a headache for projectionists. “For me,” he says, “that's quite difficult because a bad print of a film is never a good thing, but if it's a bad print of a film that can't be seen any other way...” He trails off sadly.

The threat of damage to film prints is constant, he says. “Every time you run a film print through a projector there is some element of damage done to it. You're running it over sprockets at loads of feet per second.”

He switches a nearby projector on – it’s loud, quick and, after leaning in to look more closely, it’s easy to see that it’s violent. “It's a really physical process,” Simmons continues. “The film is starting and stopping 24 times a second.”

The idea that shooting on film, for which the very raw material is in short and ever-decreasing supply, is endangered is a tragic one. “There's a finite amount,” Simmons says. “People aren't striking new prints, so if you damage a print, the damage is there forever.”

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The Prince Charles and the BFI are in a privileged position to protect endangered film stock. A friendly partnership between them, which sees the BFI lending reels to the Prince Charles, as well as benefitting from the business of London’s rabidly cinephile audience, allow them to prioritise screening on film the majority of the time. Not every cinema is so lucky.

While the historic Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford does have a 35mm projector, owner Becky Hallsmith says that it’s mainly the digital projector in use “for all sorts of logistic reasons”.

Though Dunkirk’s push for film projection was a welcome one, it still didn’t make sense for the UPP to screen it. “Certainly we thought about it, but I felt that if you're going to see it on celluloid, you probably want to see it on 70mm, so we decided not to get it on 35mm.”

Economic factors come into effect here too – the UPP, based just out of the city centre in Cowley, vies for Oxford’s filmgoers’ love with the Phoenix Picturehouse in nearby Jericho. While they do have slightly different markets, Hallsmith was aware that the Picturehouse was already set to screen Dunkirk in 35mm, leading her to decide not to.

 “It's not like I'm saying we never do it” she clarifies. “But there are reasons I haven't this time.”

Hallsmith was also aware that not all of her projectionists are trained in screening film, saying that, by screening Dunkirk in digital, she was “taking that little headache out of the equation”.

For the UPP, practicality of this kind trumps sentiment, given the cinema’s small operation. “I'd love it if I had the time to work out what films had beautiful 35mm prints and programme accordingly,” she says, “but I just don't have the time to put that amount of thought into details of programming. We're tiny. I'm doing all sorts of different jobs around the cinema as well. The programming is by no means the least important - it's the most important part of the job - but there is a limit to how much one can do and how much research one can do.”

Despite the practical issues related to 35mm, Hallsmith is still glad to have the option available, saying that when the digital projector was installed in 2012, there was enough room for the installation to account for the 35mm one – and to revamp it.

Despite many 35mm projectors being sent to an unceremonious death in skips, some projectors that are replaced for digital successors are cannibalised for parts. Hallsmith was a beneficiary. “Most of the bits on our 35mm projector are quite new,” she explains, “because they had all this stuff that they were taking out of other cinemas, so they upgraded our 35mm for us because they had all the parts to do it with.”

But Hallsmith is grounded when I ask her if having both projectors in operation is important. “It's important for me,” she laughs. “One of my real pleasures in life is to sit at the back near the projection room and to hear the film going through the sprocket. It's one of the most magical sounds in the world and always will be for me.

“But I know that for a lot of our customers, it is neither here nor there, so I have mixed feelings about it. It's not like I think everything should be on 35mm. I love it, but I can see the practicalities.”

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It is certainly practicality that’s governing cinema chains. Cineworld, Odeon and Vue have all seen huge expansions in recent years. Vue chief Tim Richards, says celluloid is a “niche product”, but the admission is tinged with sadness.

“The problem that we had,” he says about the 70mm screenings of Dunkirk, “with the conversion to digital that happened globally, there are literally no projectors left anywhere, and it's very, very hard to get one. We managed to find a projector and then we couldn't find anybody who actually knew how to run it. There are very real practical issues with the medium.

“To reinforce that we have a new look and feel to our head office, and I really wanted to have an old analogue 35mm projector in our reception and we couldn't find one. We had thousands of these things, and we had none left. We couldn't even get one for our reception!”

Even with a working projector and a trained projectionist, Richards says the format has “very obvious issues” with mass consumption. Again on the subject of Dunkirk, this time in 35mm, he says, “One of the prints that arrived was scratched. It's something that's been in the industry for a long time. If you have a big scratch, you simply can't screen it. You've got to get another print, especially when it will run through part of the film.”

It’s something that saddens Richards, who still says that projecting on film forms part of the “philosophy” of Vue. “We’re all big supporters [of film] and we love it. We've all been in the industry for between 25 and 30 years, the whole senior team. We genuinely love what we do, we genuinely love movies.”

That said, Richards, who is a governor of the BFI, is firmly committed to refining digital, more practical for Vue’s multiplexes. “If you go down and look at what we opened up in Leicester Square, our new flagship site, it's a 100 year old building where we shoehorned in new technology so it's not perfect, but it gives you an idea of what we're doing."

The new site has two Sony Finity 4K resolution projectors working in tandem – as well as the brand new Dolby Atmos sound system. The dual projection gives the screen a brighter, deeper hue. From a digital perspective, it is bleeding edge, and the set up is being rolled out across the UK and Germany, with 44 sites and counting. Richards is, as you would expect, enamoured with the results, claiming “that screen stands up to anything in the world”. What might be more surprising are the reactions he claims that it has elicited from celluloid devotees.

“There were a lot of old hardcore film fans there who were pleasantly surprised at the quality” he says. “People think of digital as being that new, TV-at-home which has got that clinical feel to it, and they don't feel it's got that warmth and colour saturation. This [Finity presentation] has that warmth of an old 35mm or 70mm, so I don't think the future is going back.”

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For Richards and Vue, the future appears to be as bright as that 4K Sony Finity screen in Leicester Square - for celluloid, not so much. While the appetite for watching movies on film might be growing at a promising rate for indie exhibitors, the list of technical and logistical problems is still insurmountable for many smaller venues - saying nothing of the race against time to preserve easily-damaged prints.

The main concern is an ephemeral one: the preservation of the knowledge needed to run a film projection. When the BFI’s Dominic Simmons speaks about the skills of his team and the need to pass those skills on, it evokes near forgotten skills such as thatching and forging. If the BFI and the PCC have anything to say about it, those projection skills will live on, but it’s unclear how far their voices can carry in a digital multiplex age.

As for the voice of celluloid-lover-supreme Christopher Nolan, even he too is shouting down what seems to be an unstoppable march towards a convenient digital future. But in a groundswell of growing interest and passion for the film reel, it seems that a director so obsessed with playing with time in his films seems to have bought exactly that for celluloid. Time is running out on the film reel, but there might be more of it left than we thought.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom