Film Is Here To Stay – For Some
By James F. Finn
In 1979, rock musician Neil Young sang the lyrics, “Rock and roll is here to stay/It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away.” Those lyrics were from the song, “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”. Mr. Young was highlighting the ever-changing movement of rock music from one trend to the next during the 1950’s through the 1970’s – from rockabilly to folk rock to acid rock to punk rock.
A similar trend is happening today in the business of cinema. Earlier this year, 20th Century Fox announced plans to phase out the printing and distribution of 35 mm film by 2013. The 21st Century solution will be to distribute to theaters digital files of new releases on a hard drive. Digital files, however, can only be screened if the theater is equipped with a Digital Cinema Package (DCP). DCP will ultimately replace the analog movie projector whose trademark buzzing can be heard from the back of dark, silent screening rooms.
According to LA Weekly, today it costs the studios about $1,500 to print and distribute a movie; in the future, that cost will drop to just $150 per digital copy. That is a ten-fold difference in what it costs to print and distribute new releases. Multiply the difference in cost when switching from analog to digital by the number of movie theatres in the country and one is looking at a dramatically more efficient cost structure.
Large movie theater chains such as Regal and AMC are making the transition by purchasing and installing DCP’s. For small, independently owned theaters across the country to stay competitive, they too will need to invest in the new technology. The Coolidge Corner Theater, an independently run movie theater in Brookline, Massachusetts, has been able to stay in business by making such a purchase.
As the day begins at the Coolidge Corner Theater, the smell of popcorn is in the air as patrons line up at the box office window to purchase tickets for the newest features the theater has to offer. As Andrew Thompson, the operations director at the theater, and Matt Gress, the lead projectionist, prepare for their workday, both gentlemen discussed the move from analog to digital and how it has affected their business.
“The existing projector was a combination of applying for some grants,” said Thompson. “We had been doing quite well business-wise. So we had some money in the bank,” he said.
Mr. Thompson went on to describe how the theater plans to bolster its business by continuing the transition from analog to digital formats as it purchases more digital projectors. He said: “The DCP will look better in terms of brightness and resolution. The real reason that we’d want to get DCP projectors in as many rooms as possible is largely so that if you get something that you’re showing on DCP. You could move it from one room to another. Right now if we got something, we’d only be able to show it in this one house on DCP.”
The Coolidge is very fortunate to be able to continue its operations. However, not all independently run theaters are able to make the conversion as smoothly as the Coolidge did.
Jessica Mize, a sales representative with NEC Digital Cinema Display Solutions (a business unit within Texas Instruments), told me what her company was doing to help small businesses like The Coolidge make the transition rather than shuttering these theaters that have been part of the local community for many years.
“Unfortunately the “mom and pop” style theatre is going through the worst time in this transition,” Mize said. “Due to their smaller sales-size and being family owned…etc. It has been difficult for these exhibitors to complete this conversion.” “Most have been getting financing (which NEC offers), some have had fundraisers to raise the money and some just intend to ride out the wave and see what happens.”
To assist small businesses in the conversion, NEC has manufactured a smaller, more cost effective solution for these theaters that works with 30’ width screens. It is based on a .68 DLP chip, developed by Texas Instruments, which has received DCI approval and is technically in compliance with movie studio standards.
Prices for even small digital cinema projectors can cost upwards of $32,000. Larger models start at $45,000 and can easily exceed $70,000, depending on the features included.
In contrast to The Coolidge, another independent theater, The Crescent Theater of Mobile, Alabama, was able to successfully fund its investment in a projector by starting what it called the “Kickstarter” fundraising campaign. Its initial goal was to raise approximately $75,000; in the end, they far exceeded that goal and raised almost $85,000. The theater plans to use the funds not only for the purchase of a DCP but also to train employees on its use and to retrofit the theater.
Mr. Gress, The Coolidge’s head projectionist, talked about how the theaters’ conversion to digital will affect his job. Luckily, he will be able to offer both analog and digital screenings.
“We’ll be able to continue to run 35 mm for as long as there is film to run,” he said. However, for new releases, the digital transition will be absolutely necessary. “There is not going to be a lot of new product anymore that’s on film.” (As stated earlier, studios like 20th Century Fox have already announced their intention to phase out film prints by 2013.)
Mr. Gress, who manages a staff of three to help him maintain the 35mm projectors throughout his 14 hour workday, said: “You’re here as long as the place is open.”
DCP technology has not resulted in job losses at the theater; rather, it has shifted the work of the staff to higher value marketing activities. The theater provides filmgoers with repertory screenings, question and answer programs with directors and award ceremonies for independent filmmakers — and the staff is actively involved in setting up for these programs.
Mr. Gress also explained how the DCP experience has in fact reduced complexity.
“You get your feature on a hard drive and it’s ingested into the server…the trailers are ingested in a similar fashion and then you build a playlist…then you just press play. As long as you’ve done everything correctly – the program just plays itself,” he said.
Though the theater plans to continue using its analog projector, Mr. Gress clearly understands the inevitability of the transition to digital and how it will ultimately effect employment at theater.
“As the head projectionist here, I’m sure there’s plenty of work for me. But, I’m not training guys on 35 mm anymore because I don’t think there is going to be a whole lot of work,” said Gress.
When asked about their perspective on digital versus analog, student filmgoers had their own take. Charlie Nash, a student at Emerson College and an avid Cinephile, had these words regarding visual aesthetics:
“I don’t hate digital like a lot of people do. But, at the same time, it is different and I feel that there is an intimacy in the look of film that is lacking in the digital version. When you’re watching a digital film in a theater, it basically looks like a blue ray movie you’d watch at home on your TV.”
Todd Greenberg, another student from Emerson College and a video editor, discussed the issue from a technical standpoint:
“When people think about difference, they’re like: ‘ugh, that’s digital’ or ‘ugh, that’s film’. The only time people say ‘ugh’ is if it’s lit or shot poorly. If you light it right – people are not going to really care what (medium) they’re looking at.”
Setting aside the students’ views, Ms. Mize from NEC and Messrs. Gress and Thompson also had their own perspectives on the shift to digital.
“The thing about running something manually is you’ve got a guy running both machines and paying attention to them both and doing the changeover himself,” said Gress. “It’s going to be done right because somebody is there and I like the way film looks.”
Ms. Mize expressed her appreciation for the film medium but also noted that the general population appears to appreciate the high definition and brightly lit images that are a hallmark of the digital medium.
“To me personally — and I do go to the movies frequently — I have a certain respect for film technology. However, with the next generation of tech-savvy viewers, I’ve noticed a certain new bar that has been set by the plasma/LCD, high bright displays that people purchase for their living rooms. With this comparison, movies need to present themselves in a high tech manner in order to compete. People expect to see crisp, clear, bright images on the screen because that is what they get back at home. I agree that it is a change that has its drawbacks but digital is taking the movie making and watching business to new levels that cannot be reached via film.”
Mr. Thompson’s personal preference is film, but he also feels that film and digital can coexist.
“As a kid I didn’t get to see a lot of movies,” Thompson said. “So when I did start going to movie theaters when I was in college, it was a new and exciting experience. It means a lot to me personally to go and watch a film. I feel like there is a place in this world for movie theaters that show film and I’d like to see that continue.”
In a transition period, many can feel uncertain about what the future holds. However, Mr. Thompson explained why he thinks the Coolidge Corner Theater will be just fine. “We’re almost going into 2013. We’re still showing 35 mm. Nobody has come to our booker and said, ‘Hey! Next year we’re cutting you off from 35 mm.’ I don’t think we’re worried at this point.”