The 35mm film, distributed to movie houses in iconic round canisters, was diagnosed with terminal obsolescence last week and given less than two years to live in theaters. It turned 132 this year.
The prognosis, from the National Association of Theatre Owners, underscored a week-long homage to technology at the CinemaCon gathering of theater owners, the largest box-office conference in the country.
With digital, 3-D and IMAX films dominating the landscape, most studios will be out of the 35mm business by the end of 2013, says John Fithian, president of NATO.
Already, 20th Century Fox has stopped distributing film prints in Hong Kong. Developing and distributing a single print can cost up to $2,500, while digital films can be sent on $150 hard drives or over the Internet with no image degeneration.
"Last year, I … predicted that domestic distribution of movies in the format of celluloid film could cease by the end of 2013," Fithian says. "That prediction is becoming a reality."
That reality could threaten small theaters and chains that use the film format. Still, the theater owners association says, out of the nation's nearly 40,000 screens, more than 27,000 are digital, and about 1,000 a month are converted, a rate analysts expect to continue as box-office attendance and revenue climb.
Ang Lee, whose 3-D Life of Pi hits screens Dec. 21, says that while it's inevitable, film's death need not be sad.
Since George Eastman began producing photographic paper in 1880, "we've done things in the same way," Lee says. "You still want to tell great stories, but we have a more immersive, emotional way to do it."
Also at last week's conference:
•Batman and Spider-Man. Superheroes made pronounced comebacks at CinemaCon as footage for The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3) and The Dark Knight Rises (July 20) had exhibitors buzzing.
•Ted. Think Teddy Ruxpin meets Judd Apatow. The star of this July 13 comedy, directed by Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane, had theater owners splitting their sides as a brought-to-life stuffed animal feasted on expletives and sexual innuendo like Yogi Bear on a picnic basket.
•The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Footage from Peter Jackson's Dec. 14 film divided exhibitors, many of whom weren't sure what to make of its 48-frame-per-second projection rate, twice the typical speed. A faster frame rate removes any blur from the screen and can make images jarringly clear.
•Ticket prices. The cost of a movie this year dropped a penny, to an average of $7.92, compared with $7.93 in 2011. Analysts credit fewer 3-D films, which can drive up ticket costs.