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The virus of censorship

Chinese media organizations are riddled with informers who report directly to the government – only a minority of journalists are brave enough to fight the system.

One afternoon in May 2001, I got a call from a stranger claiming to be from the publicity department of Guangdong provincial party committee, asking me to remove an article that was going to be published in the next day’s Southern Metropolis Daily. As editor-in-chief of the paper, I often got similar calls from party organisations. However, on this occasion I did not know the caller and I wanted to take the chance to show my disappointment, so I answered very impolitely: “I’m sorry, I don’t know you. I cannot be certain that this is a directive from the departmental leadership. To prevent anyone from falsely using the name of the publicity department and issuing orders to the paper, please could you fax over written documentation, because it is hard to execute this when there is no evidence.”

Towards the end of Jiang Zemin’s term as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP), the control over the media by the publicity department, led by Ding Guangen, got tighter and tighter. One obvious change was that the department no longer sent orders to the media in formal documents or cables, requiring editors to implement them. Instead, it left messages on the phone or sent text messages directly to specific people in charge. The reason for this was that there were increasingly frequent prohibitions. Written documents needed to be approved at every level, and the bureaucracy was too complex and too slow in urgent cases. Passing the message over the phone or by text message was quick; the process was simple and effective.

Before the current general secretary, Hu Jintao, came to power in 2002, human rights worsened, justice took a step back, certain dignitaries rose in power and corruption intensified. The CCP’s ideological clampdown strengthened in all aspects and the media took the biggest hit. Liu Yunshan, a former correspondent for Xinhua, the official Chinese press agency, took charge of the publicity department. He seemed to be professional at hiding the truth and fabricating lies. The authorities exerted greater control over the media and the extent of the control grew even wider. There were ever more tactics, which became more specific and targeted. Every time there was a big emergency or an important meeting, there would be a deluge of prohibitions and regulations from the publicity department.

Early in 2003, when Sars was widespread, the publicity department of the Guangdong provincial party committee sometimes issued up to 30 prohibitions a day. It would even issue specific rules on what articles should be put on the front page, the position of articles, guidance on headlines, specifications of photographs and so on. Southern Metropolis Daily, however, continued to break from the controls and air its voice. Zhang Dejiang at that time was a politburo standing committee member and also secretary of Guangdong provincial party committee. On two occasions, at the provincial standing party committee, he asked his sub­ordinates: “Why don’t we sue the people in charge of Southern Metropolis Daily for exposing confidential information?”

The party authorities’ ideas were consistent with Zhang Dejiang’s, and they began to put these ideas into practice. On 17 September 2004 Zhao Yan, an assistant at the New York Times’s Beijing bureau, was arrested in Shanghai. Two months later, a reporter at Modern Business in Hunan, Shi Tao, was detained in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Both reporters were sued for leaking confidential information. Zhao Yan was given a three-year prison sentence and Shi Tao ten years. The evidence for Shi Tao’s so-called crime was that he leaked publicity department prohibitions to the outside world’s media.

Publicity department control of the media in the Hu Jintao era became underground and secretive, probably because it knew that its actions were unjust and possibly institutionally criminal. A clear change during this period was the way officials would call the media to communicate a prohibition and often stress before hanging up: “Do not make a written record. Do not leave any written evidence. Do not disclose the content of the ban, which department issued the ban, and especially not the name of the leader who issued it.”

As the prohibitions became more private and hidden, they became a big “power-seeking” tool for the publicity department. High-level party officials, in order to dress up their track record and the realities of society, relied heavily on the publicity department. Propaganda officials were flattered and given more opportunities for promotion. On the other hand, party officials, rich and powerful interest groups and large companies, in the case of a scandal, would no longer think about media relations but instead seek to appease senior officials at the publicity department as soon as possible, in order to shut off and control the information at the source. A media scholar from Suzhou University, Du Zhihong, said on his Weibo account (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) that the prohibition orders were used to protect the interests of the corrupt and criminal activities. He wondered how much protection money was received behind each order.

The publicity department usually controls the media by commenting on news. It publishes a regular News Comments report to central politburo members and all secretaries of provincial party committees. It comments on, and gives suggestions for responses to, news and essays that have already been published. This is classic post-event news censorship. The publicity department news comment group is comprised of extreme leftists retired from the government media. They let off steam about the words of any media organisation that is not faithful to the party or not in the party’s interest. As a result, they receive special treatment and benefits. However, the post-event system has its flaws. It is useful only when working with the tamed majority of the media – people who worry about losing their position – but is less effective with the disobedient minority.

On the line

In April 2000, a column in Southern Metropolis Daily was criticised severely by News Comments. Not long afterwards, at the politburo meeting, the then publicity department director, Ding Guangen, took a copy of News Comments out of his briefcase. With a pencil he wrote: “For the attention of Secretary Chang­chun”. He then handed it over to Li Chang­chun, a politburo member and secretary of the Guangdong provincial party standing com­mittee, who was sitting at his side. Several days later, Zhong Yangsheng, another member of Guangdong’s standing committee and director for propaganda, summoned Fan Yijin, director of the Southern Newspaper Group, for a talk. He explicitly asked for me to be dismissed as editor-in-chief of Southern Metropolis Daily and be removed from all responsibilities at the paper. Fan Yijin took the usual steps of delaying the process and, by lifting the barrel of the gun an inch higher, kept me in my position.

Fan Yijin’s response, in his protection of his subordinates, is no longer possible. In the past few years, the central government has systematically eliminated all opportunities for the media to voice dissent. It has removed any space in which the liberal media can exist. Publicity departments at all levels not only directly or indirectly keep a tight leash on the appointments of senior staff in the media, but they also plant followers and informers within organisations so they can quickly establish the internal situation of the media and respond accordingly.

One morning at the end of May 2003, Zhong Yangsheng summoned the entire Southern Metropolis Daily editing committee to the Guangdong publicity department for three hours of lectures, in which he abused and cursed the paper. After the meeting, back in the office, I treated the editing committee to lunch. At the table, we did not hold back on mocking and criticising Zhong Yangsheng’s rigid and ridiculous extreme-leftist views. In the afternoon, as I was rushing to Shenzhen for a meeting, I got a call from Zhang Dongming, director of the news section of Guangdong’s publicity department. He said harshly: “Not only did you just fail to implement the words of the publicity department leaders, but you insulted them. How dare you!” My hands trembled, and I quickly pulled off the motorway.

After 2005, the system enacted the strategy of “demoralise, divide and conquer”. The central publicity department started sending ­censors directly to major media organisations to carry out censorship prior to publication. The central government was therefore not only passing comment on news after publication, but had a pre-publication checkpoint. The dual system formed a pincer movement and provided a double safeguard.

Another policy was even more effective: the direct appointment of publicity department officials to leadership positions in major media organisations. Between 1996 and now, three news section directors in Guangdong’s publicity department have been promoted to senior positions in the Southern Newspaper Group. In other words, three news police chiefs took up editor-in-chief positions. This trend became even more evident in 2005. It was prevalent throughout China, but slower in Guangdong.

At the beginning of this year, to prevent trouble from Guangdong before and after the 18th party congress (which begins next month), especially from the Southern Newspaper Group, the deputy director of Guangdong’s publicity department, Yang Jian, was made party secretary of the Southern Newspaper Group. A diehard conservative official, Tuo Zhen, was flown in from Beijing and made a Guangdong CCP committee member and director of the publicity department. The leadership of Southern Newspaper Group, Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend began to reshuffle at this time. The key leaders were replaced by former publicity department officials. Central government authorities, through appointments and dismissals, reinforced their control over the group and its papers.

I had played a role in establishing the Beijing News. In 2005, not long after I was forced to resign from my post there as editor-in-chief, several censors came in. Southern Metropolis Daily has five censors who come and go. They are as detestable and odious as the negative characters in a film, but they hold real power, and have absolute control over what is sent to the printers.

Censorship happens secretly; it is silent and effective. By forbidding any paper evidence, and by phoning or sending text messages directly among different levels, only one-way communication takes place between the publicity department and the media leadership, and between higher- and lower-level media leaders. The only rule for subordinates is to be loyal to the higher leadership and not cause trouble for them. Accountability and respect have become more straightforward. In time, the media leadership and workers have become used to self-censorship. Members of staff can protect their jobs and personal interests by informing on and betraying others, and so this has become the principal management tool. The dark and dangerous sides of the human character have been exploited.

The situation is as follows. Distinguished media leaders are cleared out systematically, excellent journalists are targeted and removed, and even their supporters are completely marginalised. The subdued and obedient hold all the power. Censorship, like a virus, clones itself and spreads quickly; prohibition orders become stricter at every level. Self-censorship is much harsher than passive censorship. The fundamental principles of news reportage have been destroyed, and there is no longer any identifi­cation with values. Lowliness has become the only way to get by.

When Hu Jintao came to power, the Communist Party of China became more totalitarian. Under his leadership, it has raced ahead on the path of anti-universal values, anti-human rights, anti-democracy and anti-freedom. It opposes fairness and justice, and associates itself with evil and injustice.

This is a hidden danger in China’s low-cost and peaceful transition to democracy. So long as the central government upholds Hu Jintao’s ideas on governance, it will not be able to achieve true justice. Freedom of speech, with press freedom at its core, is as contrived as the Arabian Nights. The clampdown on media freedom and freedom of speech has become part of the systematic evil of China’s government. Under its strict control, the media have become tired and journalists are at their wits’ end. Media independence and freedom of speech seem increasingly far off, as does the possibility of integrity and ethics. We are moving ever further away from truth and justice.

Cheng Yizhong is a renowned journalist and media manager. He is a co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the Chinese daily newspapers Southern Metropolis Daily and the Beijing News. After Southern Metropolis Daily exposed Sun Zhigang’s confinement and fatal beating, as well as the truth about Sars, Cheng was detained in secret for more than five months by the Guangdong authorities in 2004 for “economic crimes”, before being released as innocent. He received the 2005 Unesco World Press Freedom Prize. He is now president of the Hong Kong Sun Media Group.

Cheng Yizhong is a journalist and media manager. He is a co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the Chinese daily newspapers Southern Metropolis Daily and the Beijing News, and current president of the Hong Kong Sun Media Group.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

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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 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit