For more than a century, Hollywood has relied on 35-millimeter film to capture its fleeting images and deliver them to the silver screen. Now, in a historic move, Paramount Pictures has become the first big studio to stop releasing its major movies on film in the United States.
The studio's Oscar-nominated film "The Wolf of Wall Street" is the studio's first movie in wide release to be distributed entirely in digital format, according to theater industry executives briefed on the plans who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Paramount recently notified theater owners that its Will Ferrell comedy "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues," which opened in December, was the last movie released on 35-mm film, these people said. Previously, only small movies such as documentaries were released solely in digital format.
The decision is likely to encourage other studios to follow suit, accelerating a complete phase-out of film that could come by the end of the year.
"It's of huge significance because Paramount is the first studio to make this policy known," said Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
"For 120 years, film and 35 mm has been the format of choice for theatrical presentations. Now we're seeing the end of that. I'm not shocked that it's happened, but how quickly it has happened."
Paramount has kept its decision under wraps, at least in Hollywood, and a spokeswoman for the studio did not return calls for comment.
Its reticence reflects the fact that no studio wants to be seen as the first to abandon film, which retains a cachet among purists. Some studios may also be reluctant to give up box-office revenue by bypassing theaters that can show only film.
About 8 percent of U.S. theater screens have not gone digital and can show movies only in the old-fashioned film format.
Internationally, Paramount is still expected to ship film prints to Latin America and other foreign markets where most theaters still show movies on film.
Studios prefer digital distribution because it is much cheaper. Film prints cost as much as $2,000; a digital copy on disc usually costs less than $100.
Digital technology also enables theaters to screen higher-priced 3-D films and makes it easier for them to book and program entertainment.
Paramount's move comes nearly a decade after studios began working with exhibitors to help finance the replacement of film projectors with digital systems.
As a result, large chains have moved quickly to embrace digital technology: Ninety-two percent of the 40,045 screens in the U.S. have already converted to digital, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.
The march to digital puts further pressure on some small-town community theaters that have been struggling to finance the purchase of $70,000 digital projectors.
Those theaters are at risk of going out of business if they can no longer obtain film prints of movies.
More than 1,000 theaters, about half of them independently owned, have not converted to digital. Some are turning to their communities to raise funds for digital equipment.
Others have opted to close because of the high costs.