Oscar Enters the Picture in Film vs. Digital Debate

Times Staff Writer

When director George Lucas made “Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones,” he recorded the action as a massive string of ones and zeroes, captured on digital cameras and augmented with special effects created on computer terminals. In some cases, it was shown in theaters with a digital projector.

“Star Wars” is undeniably a movie. But should the absence of actual film stock disqualify it from competing for a golden statue on Oscar night?

This distinction in language may seem insignificant, but these two little words -- “film” and “digital” -- stand at the center of a battle in Hollywood. The vocabulary shift is affecting everything from worker paychecks and union contracts to job definitions and distribution deals.

“It may be the most profound change that the entertainment industry has ever seen,” said Jonathan Kuntz, an visiting associate professor in American movie history at UCLA’s department of film, television and digital media.

The wordplay has been important enough to compel the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ board of governors to vote on the so-called digital issue.


The summons went out last summer to the elite of the established film world, including actor Tom Hanks, director Michael Mann and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. The governors gathered at the academy’s plush offices in Beverly Hills and, when they reached the proper point on the agenda, began refining the technical definition of “digital” cinema.

What does it mean to be digital? Can an all-digital production be considered a film? What if the movie never touches celluloid, which is Lucas’ goal for “Star Wars Episode III”?

The discussion, though engrossing, was brief. Raising his voice, Academy President Frank Pierson simply asked, “Who’s going to call George Lucas and tell him his movie can’t be nominated for an Oscar?”

From the introduction of sound to the advent of color, each significant technological shift in the film industry has wrought havoc on some level.

When silent movies adopted synchronized sound, the new technology wiped out the careers of those who wrote intertitles, the screens that displayed the dialogue spoken by the actors or described what was happening in a scene.

Thousands of musicians also lost their jobs, as theaters no longer needed to employ live orchestras to accompany silent movies, and a generation of actors failed to make the transition.

Similarly, the widespread introduction of color film in the 1930s forced costume designers to create new wardrobes that worked in a multihued world. Lighting designers and cinematographers had to adjust their techniques to light sets for color film.

Yet what makes the advent of digital far more revolutionary is that it touches all levels of Hollywood. Said Kuntz: “This is hitting everyone” -- often in unexpected ways.

The most obvious impacts are on Hollywood employment contracts, the agreements that unions ink with movie producers, and the pacts that workers sign when they take on specific jobs.

No one wants to repeat the costly mistakes that the guilds made when they failed to realize the power of new technologies such as cable TV. Writers gave up lucrative residual payments for shows written for channels such as HBO -- a bad move, given that these networks now generate millions of dollars in revenues from original programming.

This year, when actors began to question who had jurisdiction over their pay scales on digital TV productions, it sparked a nasty fight between the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

The two actors’ unions entered into an agreement in 1981 that carved out each guild’s area of coverage, particularly in realms such as television where both of them represent workers. The accord was crucial because each union negotiates contracts differently -- and at different rates -- for its shared 40,000 members.

AFTRA, which dominates video-based productions, claimed that the more than 40 TV shows filmed this fall using digital cameras fall under its bailiwick. SAG, which tends to control higher-paying film-based shows, disagreed.

After months of negotiation, the two unions agreed to divide the existing digital shows on a case-by-case basis. They continued to discuss the issue last month during informal talks in New York.

Either way, both sides concede that their contracts don’t fully address new technologies such as digital cameras, which usually rely on videotape for data storage. That’s significant because actors often receive smaller checks for work done on videotape.

How much smaller depends on the show, as the budgeting process and residual parameters can change from program to program.

“The question we’re trying to confront is whether actors will get paid the same amount regardless of what kind of camera is being used,” said AFTRA President John Connolly.

Actors aren’t alone on the vocabulary confusion.

The Directors Guild of America has wrestled with various concerns on high-tech shoots.

Among them: variations in pay for film and digital television crews, and the replacement of certain workers when film cameras are exchanged for electronic gear. Earlier this year, the guild established an internal committee and began hashing out the matter with Hollywood producers.

“This is a period of time when people will be using a lot of different media,” said Bryan Unger, Western executive director of the DGA. “We need to iron out these differences, so someone can shoot a program and the [pay] rates will all stay the same.”

Then there’s the matter of job titles. Some guild-covered positions require that the same duties be performed no matter what kind of camera is used, but the names of these occupations can vary. And that means they can come with different minimum pay requirements.

Take, for example, the parallel roles of first stage manager and first assistant director. Both must communicate the director’s notes to the actors. Both arrange the shoot time and the crew’s work schedule. But the assistant director works on a show that’s shot on film -- and earns 27% more a week than a stage manager, who only works on shows shot digitally or with videotape.

“Clearly, that made some people upset,” Unger said.

An interim settlement agreement was struck in February. It allowed workers to migrate between the two formats and leveled the pay scale, finding a middle ground between the two rates.

Pay aside, there is the even more powerful -- and subtle -- matter of shifting job responsibilities.

Because many people in the production and post-production process use similar computer tools, it is very easy for a worker to be hired for one job and then ultimately handle a totally different one when the movie begins rolling.

Unionized workers in Hollywood typically are paid based on their job title, which contractually outlines what duties are expected. If these duties change midway through a show, the worker’s paycheck won’t reflect that unless the employee is rehired under a new contract -- a switch that rarely happens.

Without a new contract, a worker’s pay can be far more -- or far less -- than what the union says the job calls for.

Movie producers say this ambiguity is cropping up increasingly frequently in many areas -- including the intersection of art, art direction and set design -- where technology is allowing workers to take on expanded roles.

These days, traditional set designers say they use three-dimensional software tools to create virtual props -- a job typically handled by a model maker. Art directors say they rely on photo editing software to adjust the lighting of a set in pre-production -- a task normally controlled by the visual effects team.

“Definitions are changing on everything, even what the word ‘digital’ means,” said John Manulis, chief executive of the digital movie production firm, Visionbox Media Group. “There are so many technologies that are encompassed in that one word....The one thing everyone agrees on is that ‘digital’ equals change. This is an industry that operates largely out of fear, and not unreasonably so because change is threatening.”

Manulis knows this firsthand. When producers were trying to nail down sales for the rights to show his film “Tortilla Soup” abroad, few people knew it was shot on digital cameras.

Certainly, Samuel Goldwyn Films, the company that co-produced and handled domestic distribution for “Tortilla Soup,” didn’t talk about it. Executives say they intentionally skirted that fact when cutting distribution deals because they feared the word “digital” would taint the movie, making it difficult to sell.

“The public thinks of digital as filming off the cuff,” said director Penelope Spheeris, who has used high-definition cameras on several recent television and documentary projects. “They think of videotape, and they think of a movie that looks terrible.”

Digital camera makers “have been running around town telling everyone ‘This is cheap!’ ” added Meyer Gottlieb, associate producer on “Tortilla Soup” and president of Samuel Goldwyn Films. “Cheap is a bad, bad word for us because buyers will refuse to pay a lot of money for something they hear is cheap....It doesn’t take a marketing genius to figure that out.”

When Samuel Goldwyn Films started to shop “Tortilla Soup” around, it recorded the digital movie onto a 35mm print and played it on a traditional film projector. After foreign and domestic distribution deals with various outlets were signed, word trickled out about the movie’s digital roots. Organizers of digital film festivals began peppering Samuel Goldwyn with requests to include the movie in their lineup.

Samuel Goldwyn Films repeatedly declined the requests. No amount of free publicity, officials say, was worth the risk of undermining future deals.

“For us,” Gotlieb said, “there is no value in embracing the word ‘digital.’ ”

But the word couldn’t be ignored at the academy. Back in its Beverly Hills offices last June, the governors ceased their discussion over the definition of digital in a “Star Wars” world, raised their hands and voted unanimously.

The rules are clear: In the eyes of Oscar, “film” is not required to make a motion picture.