The news that Deluxe is shutting its Denham lab on the outskirts of London is not so much another nail in the coffin of film as the announcement of the door-closing-ceremony long after the horse had bolted. Deluxe Denham had allegedly not been processing original camera negative for some time (as part of the world-wide agreement with Technicolor), while Technicolor shut down their processing operations at Pinewood in April 2013. Steven Spielberg’s War Horse was in fact one of the last major Hollywood studio films to be processed there.
Yet film lives on as two London boutique labs are now set to take centre stage, following Deluxe and Technicolor’s withdrawal from this market.
The formal closure of Deluxe’s facility on North Orbital Road in Denham, near the London suburb of Uxbridge, will be this Friday 21 March. The announcement was anticipated and comes just a week after the news that Deluxe is closing its Hollywood lab on 9 May. The e-mail notifying Deluxe’s clients went out on 19 February, but caught nobody by surprise, as the lab had already gone from three shifts to one. Industry sources say that Deluxe’s Denham staff were put on 30-day notice late last year, with redundancies in two waves in December last year and 14 February this year.
The Denham lab handled front-end processing rather than release prints, which Deluxe shifted to the Deluxe lab in Rome and Barcelona several years ago. It is likely to continue operating Deluxe Barcelona for at least a couple more years, as it is the company’s most state-of-the-art facility and capable of handling around 40 prints per day. This is probably the most that is needed in an ever-dwindling 35mm release print market as digital cinema roll-out approaches completion in most European territories.
While the closure of the 78-year old lab will unleash a wave of nostalgia and pontifications about the ‘death of film’, those of us who worked for Deluxe [full disclosure: I had my employment interview in the Denham building] knew that the company had been wanting to sell the building even before digital became a serious challenge to 35mm. Deluxe is rightly proud of its heritage, but has never been sentimental about bricks and mortar. The move also does not heralb the death of film, as we will soon see, only the end of Deluxe’s association with the lab business in the UK.
A Real-Estate, Not Film, Announcement
Deluxe has been looking to move out of Denham for a long time and sell off the land to property developers in what is now a prime area of suburban London. There were just two problems; the building was just too historic and the ground too polluted. How historic? John Pardey Architects know:
The DeLuxe (formerly Rank) Film Processing Laboratory is a Grade II listed building designed in 1936 by Walter Gropius [!] and Max Fry that will become redundant when Deluxe move their facilities to purpose-built digital facilities at Pinewood. The design proposed a new residential development on the site.
JPA in fact published a plan (called Denham DeLuxe – PDF link) for converting the Denham lab several years ago, with a contract value of GBP £42 million, where they set out:
The masterplan generates 62 houses and 136 apartments whilst the existing building is converted to contain 48 apartments. This project, as with the Oaklands College building conversions has allowed us to develop ways of making valuable listed modern buildings gain new life through subtle interventions that provide accessibility and energy efficiency – a ‘look no hands’ approach that retains architectural integrity of the original yet reveals a new layer within.
The scheme gained listed building and planning consents as far back as April 2008.
The writing was on the wall in 2011 when Technicolor and Deluxe announced an unprecedented tie-up to merge film processing facilities world-wide, which also involved the closing of Deluxe’s Soho Lab in London, in the face of the growth of digital film cameras and projectors. As Deluxe’s operations and engineering manager, Colin Flight, is quoted in GetWestLondon, “It’s not unexpected, and it has been a steady process getting to this stage.”
So why the long wait? Moving film out was comparatively easy; it was making the site ready to be sold that presents more of a challenge. As an industrial facility with tons of chemicals used every year the ground and soil in Denham supposedly suffered significant pollution. While today’s processing chemicals are safe and Deluxe has not violated any environmental norms, it must be remembered that the lab has been operating for 78 years. Back when the lab first started, health and safety standards were far more lax.
Not The End of Film
Film labs closing is sad but won’t come as a shock to anyone working in the industry. Film is doomed as a distribution medium, but far from dead as an acquisition medium. The news from Deluxe comes at a time when film enters its vinyl age, one where it is being kept alive by enthusiasts and directors who feel that there are aesthetic reasons for shooting on film. And we don’t just mean Christopher Nolan, who presented the Scientific and Technical Oscar to the world’s collective film lab technicians last month.