How Doc Films, the Country's Oldest Student-Run Film Organization, Is Keeping Film Alive

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The constitution had to be modified. Since 1932, Doc Films had the same goal: spectacular cinema exhibition, every night of the year. It’s hosted masterpiece premieres ranging from 1939’s The Rules of the Game to 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. And speakers ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Woody Allen. But in 80 years, the oldest student-run film organization in the country, based at the University of Chicago, has seen the film industry transform through every technical innovation. The most recent: the digital takeover, replacing the moving-picture magic that defined the 35 mm film projectors. Which means Doc Films (formally named the Documentary Film Group) had to insert a new clause in its "governing document": "Every effort must be made to project digitally only as a last resort."

Both Julia Reinitz and Jack Hamm are fourth years at the University of Chicago and are extremely active in the work that Doc stands for: film preservation. The work that they put in ensures the continuation of a cultural castle—presenting Chicago with an eclectic balance of old and new. And it’s all run by volunteers. To put the numbers into perspective, Hamm said, "We have 14 shifts a week with seven people on each shift, so we have 100 people basically regularly working for us." They show films every night of the academic year, and four nights a week each summer. For Hamm, Doc is "the opportunity to see a lot of movies that I wouldn’t have otherwise heard of, or see movies on the big screen that need to be seen on a big screen. We try to expose people to a lot of interesting stuff." That ranges from classic black-and-white avant-gardes to experimental film and film noir.

But dating back to the ’30s, Doc’s original purpose was to strictly show documentaries. Back then, digital was no option, and so everything was shown on the reels—one of Doc’s biggest motives today is to show the films on 35 mm. There are slightly different setups for the two branches of film, being either 16 mm or 35 mm. In the case of 35 mm films, two projectors are required, in contrast to 16 mm film which only has one projector. The projectionist’s main job, on a 35 mm projector, at least, is to change the reels every 20 minutes—swiftly enough that the audience will never notice anything changed. Which is exactly what digital projectors have reversed: it’s all automated. And today, 90 percent of screens in theaters have converted from film to digital, according to the London-based IHS Cinema Intelligence.

"I would love to get a paying, part-time summer job projecting somewhere but I don’t really think that those jobs exist anymore," Reintz says. "I was projecting for CIMM Fest; two weekends ago and all the movies that they were screening were either DCP or Blu-ray… I think that that’s become pretty ubiquitous; there aren’t really a lot of places that need people to project anymore. One thing that I think is really amazing about Doc is that Doc trains their projectionists. I would never have been able to learn how to project if it hadn’t been for Doc. No one trains people to do that anymore."

The decline of film projection is not necessarily a new topic. In a press conference at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino spoke on the subject, saying, "As far as I’m concerned, digital projection and DCPs is the death of cinema as I know it. It’s not even about shooting your film on film or shooting your film on digital. The fact that most films now are not presented in 35mm means that the war is lost, and digital projections — that’s just television in public."

It’s made the role of film preservationists that much more essential, to make sure that, if not at the mega theaters, there’s still a space to appreciate film.

Regarding current work, Doc Films has actually been turning to 16 mm film more frequently than 35 mm film. "I think lately we’ve been buying a lot of 16 mm prints off of EBay because that’s a thing you can do, and that enables us to get prints of movies that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to show," Reinitz explained. Beyond this, Reinitz just doesn’t often see the equipment that 35 mm film requires to withstand changing times. It’s meant that digital, the last resort, has had to become a lot more of a frequent option. Hamm added, "It looks like from now on we won’t be able to show many new movies on film, which is something we’ll have to figure out. Most movies now are not pressed on film."

Regardless, Reinitz and Hamm plan to do what they can to continue persevering through the preservation of film, one reel at a time. "I know this is probably not the most important issue in the world right now," Hamm said, "but I think we are sort of losing something if we go straight to digital formats. We actually lose the aspect of it being a moving picture, which I think is one of the coolest things about movies."

Photos by Quinn Dombrowski; Flickr