Making Sense of the Digital Conversion

An image from the website for Pennsylvania's Ambler Theater, which needs to raise $100,000 per screen for digital projectors or risks shutting down. This article details why the ongoing digital conversion poses a threat to movie-going.Over the past decade, the movie theater industry has spent millions of dollars converting their traditional 35mm film projectors to digital projectors. Saturday, at the NAB’s Technology Summit on Cinema, it was announced that 50 percent of screens worldwide had made the switch to digital, 70 percent in the United States.

On film blogs, this conversion has largely been derided and smeared — “How can they get rid of 35mm? It’s the best way to watch a movie!” While I understand the sentiment behind this protest, it seems to me that the approach is rather narrow — Hollywood isn’t going to fix the “problem” just because a niche group of purists say it exists. There’s too much money to be saved by going 100 percent digital. What is necessary to actually create positive change is for the everyday moviegoer to join in the fight to keep 35mm alive. Which first requires them to understand what’s at stake.

There have been many excellent pieces written about that topic, among them the recent LA Weekly feature “The Death of Film” and scholar David Bordwell’s series of blog posts on the digital conversion. But these are so long and detailed that undoubtedly few non-cinephiles have read them. Thus, in straightforward bullet points that the average moviegoer can understand, I have compiled a summary of the problems with the industry’s rapid conversion to a virtual format:

A print ad for NEC digital projectors.
A print ad for NEC digital projectors.

1)  In practice, digital projection suffers just as many presentation problems as film. The proponents of digital (mainly the Hollywood studios) argued it was a way to eliminate projection gaffes and deliver a consistently pristine image, because operating a digital projector was much less intensive than a film projector. The projector would be set up by a professional, and then all the operator would have to do would be upload the new movies and hit play. Further, digital copies could not be physically damaged like film – so there would be no dirt or scratches visible on month-old prints.

But digital has, instead, suffered just as many, if not more, presentation issues as film at most locations. One major, constant digital projection problem has to do with the adoption of Sony’s 4K projector on nearly every screen by giants AMC and Regal. As Ty Burr first reported in the Boston Globe, when a 3D lens is used on this machine to show 2D movies (as is often the case), the image can be up to 50 percent darker. I have endured the dimming many times and I can personally attest that it is often dramatic. (Supporters of Sony 4K counter that using a larger bulb at the proper level eliminates the problem, but in my experience, it seems AMC and Regal aren’t doing this.)

When 3D equipment is left on other brands of projectors, the image can look “washed out” or tinted in green — I’ve seen both. Further, because digital “projectionists” are not trained much on the machines, they often can’t troubleshoot. There have been several times I have reported to a projectionist that the movie is showing in the wrong aspect ratio, and they have no clue how to fix it. That never would have happened with film. Bottom line: digital doesn’t always produce the promised awesome images.

2)  If 35mm film is done away with entirely, potentially thousands of theaters and jobs will be eradicated on the spot. The current Hollywood plan is to be all-digital somewhere between 2013 and 2015 — which is to say, to not provide 35mm prints to theaters anymore. This threatens to make any theater that cannot afford to convert to digital projection extinct (as the National Association of Theater Owners puts it, “Convert or die”), which could have devastating effects on local economies.

The cost of converting a screen to digital can be astronomical. It’s a minimum of $65,000 for the new projector and server required, and often more for older theaters, which may require audio upgrades to accommodate the equipment. Throw in another $10,000-$20,000 for 3-D, which has been one of the key financiers of digital because it allows a $2-4 surcharge to be added onto each ticket. For many independent art-houses, small-town theaters, seasonal drive-ins, and second-run locations, an entire year’s gross revenue doesn’t even come close to this hefty price-tag.

Thus, if 35mm projection goes at a theater that can’t afford digital, so do an entire staff’s jobs. Furthermore, if the theater happens to be in a small town–where the lower-grossing theaters tend to be–then it could be the end of theatrical moviegoing for an entire community.  Needless to say, this could have devastating impacts on the culture of moviegoing that has been fostered in the United States over the past century. As one who hates to see people opt for Netflix over the theatrical experience, this breaks my heart.

While the digital projection industry has undoubtedly created jobs of its own, one wonders if they are substantial enough to offset those that will be lost by the extinction of 35mm. In addition to the theaters that could go under, there are the companies that actually manufacture film prints. Kodak, the nation’s premier manufacturer of film stock, declared bankruptcy last year — not a coincidence.

3)  If film prints are no longer manufactured, the future storage and preservation of movies could be unstable. As Charlotte Crofts and other researchers on the topic have detailed, the longterm stability of a digital file is unknown. If we only store the films produced today on digital sources–not film copies, as has been the custom until now–then we cannot guarantee that they will exist in 100 years. Furthermore, if the dominant digital format changes several times over the years (as it undoubtedly will), then what is to say we will have the equipment required to play antiquated files, even if they’re still intact? (It would be like trying to put a DOS floppy into your new MacBook.) This problem could grow tenfold if the studios decide to trash the 35mm prints of old films stored in the archives once they are digitized. They’ll probably keep a close eye on the digitized versions of Casablanca and Citizen Kane, but what about a more obscure film from the era? It could effectively disappear for no reason.

Digital Cinema Package (DCP)
Digital Cinema Package (DCP)

4)  Independent films and revival shows could be subjugated to lesser formats. When you see a Hollywood film projected digitally, it is shown via a “Digital Cinema Package” (DCP) — a high quality copy, loaded onto the projector off a hard drive. But independent and older movies will not always have that luxury, and may end up being projected off a lower resolution Blu-Ray, just like the ones you watch at home (only blown up onto a much larger screen, the imperfections are more easily seen).

For independent films, it’s a cost issue, created by what are called Virtual Print Fees. Called VPFs for short, these were designed to soften the financial blow on theater owners converting to digital. When buying a digital projector, a theater owner had the option of signing a VPF agreement, which entitled him/her to a payment of several hundred dollars every time they opened a new film, paid by that film’s distributor, for up to a decade. The theory behind this was that the studio would be paying about the same amount it would have costed them to strike a 35mm print (much more expensive than a $150 digital copy), thereby subsidizing the digital conversion.

This worked out fine for Hollywood studios, whose films open in all theaters simultaneously. But for independent studios who “tour” prints across the country–using a dozen prints at over 100 theaters by staggering play-dates–VPFs proved a massive problem. This is because they have to pay the VPF fee at most of the 100+ theaters, effectively paying for the equivalent of 100+ 35mm prints, even though they would only need a dozen under the “touring” distribution model. Because they can’t turn a profit with VPFs, they are forced to work around them by providing Blu-Rays, which unlike DCPs are not subject to the VPF agreements.

For revival houses, which play older films as their main business, the studios have begun to offer only digital copies (usually Blu-Ray for eclectic titles) as opposed to 35mm archival prints. This represents a tremendous reduction in quality. One could argue digital versions of today’s films are equal in quality to their 35mm counterparts because the films are digitized when edited, then put back on film. But this is not the case for older films, which never touched video during post-production, meaning their negative resolution was preserved on release prints.

The New Beverly runs retro double-bills nightly -- all on 35mm.
The New Beverly runs retro double-bills nightly -- all on 35mm.

This brings us to what the average moviegoer can do about the issue. An employee of one such revival house, Julia Marchese of the New Beverly Cinema, has started an online petition called “Fight for 35mm.” I implore everyone to sign it. While it specifically focuses on the effects on revival houses, it has received a great deal of traction (over 10,000 signatures) and has come to stand for the preservation of the 35mm format for all theaters that want it. With all the popular press that the petition has received, the studios are clearly aware of it — the trick is to keep the numbers growing, and there is no more powerful signor than a frequent moviegoer, the individual who puts money in Hollywood’s pocket.

The second thing the average moviegoer can do to make a difference is complain when there is a presentation problem at your theater. Digital is here to stay, but it doesn’t have to mean presentations have to suffer. (In fact, I’m of the belief that DCPs can look as good, if not better, than 35mm for current films.) The way to ensure that the consistency of digital shows improves is to let your local theater manager know you’re not happy with the status quo. If the picture is too dim, don’t just sit there like a stooge — speak up! If the aspect ratio looks wrong, speak up! If there is text being cut off, speak up!

More than almost any other business, Hollywood and the movie theaters that exhibit its product are customer dependent. You have the power to make a difference on this issue  — and equipped with the information above, you are now empowered to exercise it.

[Headline image credit: Ambler Theater – Ambler, Pennsylvania. You can donate to their effort to purchase digital projectors for $100,000 a pop here.]