The End of an Era: The Rocky Horror Picture Show Goes Digital

35mm prints of the ultimate cult hit are being replaced, and the lifelong fans are torn.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Last Friday night, I saw a movie I had never seen before. I had seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Actually, I have seen the film over 100 times. I started attending midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show when I was still in high school, and attended pretty regularly all throughout college. When I was in Los Angeles, I would go to The Nuart Theater, located on Santa Monica Blvd., which has been showing Rocky Horror on a weekly basis for over 25 years; the Nuart is one of the only theaters in the country to do this. So I am intimately familiar with not only the film itself, but with the down-and-dirty midnight movie experience that is now an inextricable component of Rocky Horror.  

Last week, however, Rocky Horror at The Nuart Theater (a place where I have been employed for over 10 years) changed. It was the first time it was shown using a digital print. It was the first time anyone had seen it with a digital print, from blushing virgins to old-guard Rocky regulars, who had been in regular attendance for literally decades. The response to this new form of projection was… well, it was ambivalent at best.

Many readers may feel that the movement from 35mm film to digital projection is just another logical step in the overall digital revolution that has been spreading rapidly throughout the film industry. And while the day may come when every theater in the world is operating from digital sources, there are those among us (including certain filmmakers like Christopher Nolan) that still appreciate the look, the heft, the old-world charm of physical celluloid. Digital is an excellent new tool in the filmmaking toolbox. But some pity the outright rejection and disposal of the old tool of 35mm. Rocky Horror attendees seem to be nostalgic 35mm adherents, which makes sense, given the long tradition of late-night illicit gay-coded naughtiness that Rocky Horror represents.

I asked some of the Rocky regulars what they thought of the new digital print. The response was pretty unanimous: It looked too clean. The new digital print had been sharpened, color-corrected, and, most damningly, brightened. It was shiny. And for many, this was no good thing. For decades, Rocky regulars were used to seeing Rocky Horror in a very certain way. Indeed, if one attended regularly enough, one could become intimate with all the tiny scratches, pops, cue marks, and other subtle imperfections in the Nuart’s well-worn (but often-replaced) 35mm print. Now all the intimate details had been erased and replaced with a clear-as-a-bell picture that resembles a TV set more than it does an actual feature film. When it was explained to them that the Nuart’s print was going to go to another theater that wasn’t currently showing Rocky Horror, many Rocky regulars acquiesced, and declared that the loss of their print was, at the very least, going toward a noble cause. But no one seemed happy about the new print.

Indeed, it seemed like the end of an era for many involved. One employee of the theater was melancholy.

“I was the one who shut down the projector at our last showing of Rocky Horror in 35mm,” she said. “Though it meant a lot to me to do it, it was heartbreaking to have done so. In my opinion, we're basically taking a film — one that has been celebrated for nearly 40 years for breaking all the rules – and regulating it. It's a complete oxymoron. Today I watched the print being loaded onto a dolly and rolled out the door and I felt like I was witnessing the end of an era. I sincerely hope that the powers that be will see the light and allow us to return to watching this iconically rebellious film in the proper, gritty, medium that it deserves.”

Rocky Horror is, in the eyes of many people, still a kind of sexual rebellion. It offers a place where freak flags still exist and can still be flown. It was, back in the 1970s and 1980s, a central symbol of the queer community, and a safe locale for outsider sexual expression. As time passes, however, the film seems to become more homogenized, and its gay-friendly sexual freedom loses much of its edge. Gay people can now marry (at least in some states), and Rocky Horror is now featured on "Glee." For some, this means maintaining Rocky Horror’s grindhouse tradition is all the more important.

Eloquent in his ambivalence is one Rocky regular who has been attending since the early 1990s. I asked for a contribution to this editorial, and he offered the following elegy.

“We've had the same version of the film since 1990, before some of our most ardent followers were born. 22 years, and over a thousand shows, and over a hundred thousand lives touched by what we do later, Fox is turning a careful artful projection with moving parts and flickering light into pushing Play on a DVR. The Nuart is a single-screen art film and revival house theater and if film is still going to be projected anywhere in the year 2013 and beyond, it would be here.

“I find it sad that a movie so closely married to classic B-movie cinema be given a 21st century Stepford neutering. Rocky is partly a celebration of sex but also very much a celebration of celluloid; its screenings are a tribute to a tribute, an expansion of that original celebration. It is a living art experience which sprouts and grows from film like a gangly rhododendron. You don't show the Mona Lisa on a plus-size iPad. James Bond doesn't drink Smart and Final martini mix. No matter how much cheaper or more efficient or financially prudent either of those things might be.”

He is optimistic about the future, to be sure…

“On the other hand, Rocky is ever-evolving. I like to think the show is comfortable stretching and experimenting with the times. I am aware that the best modern digital projection looks excellent and I look forward to the restored version possibly being a sight for sore eyes. Perhaps we'll look back at this as the end of a dark, faded era.”

But he regrets the powerlessness that this change represents to the Rocky regulars who, it should perhaps be noted, operate autonomously of the studio the theater, or any moneyed film organization.

“I hope so, because it seems we have no choice. No choice or control over the show we've put on, for free (with a few dollars in donations), nearly every week since the mid-1980s. Oh also, tell all the Catholic churches we're replacing their candles with LED ones. By order of the Pope? No, by order of the candle supply company. They're coming to take all the candles and replace them Tuesday.”

Despite his bitterness, there is a lighthearted practical complaint in all this:

“I do wonder if the shift to more accurate color will mean having to change all our costumes and makeup. Dammit.”

Dammit, Janet. We all love you. Rocky Horror will persist, and I feel that its grindhouse origins will continue, even if it is through homage and oral traditions. But just like when punk rock goes mainstream, many feel the sense that, through every step of progress, something vital must inevitably be lost.