August 27, 2008

Digital Cinema Supplanting 35 Mm Film in Theaters

By Michael Machosky

For die-hard movie fans, it's hard to imagine, but the day might soon arrive when film will join dead media like VHS and Betamax in the dusty junk drawer of history.

In fact, this might already have happened at your local movie theater, whose operators probably are hoping you didn't even notice.

The durable 35-millimeter film format is slowly being supplanted by digital cinema, replacing reels of celluloid with bits and bytes on a hard drive.

"The reason we changed from 35 mm is to get ahead of the technology curve," says Wynn Patrick, director of digital content for Columbus, Georgia-based Carmike Cinemas.

The Carmike Cinemas chain is one of the early adopters of digital cinema. More than 250 theaters in the chain have switched all their screens to digital projection. That includes 10 of its 11 Pittsburgh- area theaters -- all but the Carmike Maxi-Saver 12 in West Mifflin.

Surprisingly, digital cinema is proliferating in spite of one major drawback: The digital image simply doesn't look as good on- screen as film does.

"Film looks better," says Gary Kaboly, director of exhibition at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. "That reflective, soft image is definitely more pleasing to the eye than the harder image that a lot of video projection seems to produce. However, the gap between the two is getting closer and closer all the time. I've seen digital projection where 99 out of 100 people would not know it's being projected digitally instead of on film. So I think that's why a lot of theaters are now able to do it without complaints."

While the technology is still maturing, the attraction is obvious: It's more efficient for theaters to download new movies than it is to reproduce, ship and screen bulky, delicate reels of film.

"When you have a film that's opening on 2,500 screens at the same time, it's a lot more inexpensive for film companies to produce work or distribute work digitally than on film," Kaboly says. "Not only because of the making of the print -- which is probably in the $2,000 to $3,000 range -- but also, shipping that much weight across the country is expensive. That's a huge amount of money, with the number of screens they (theater chains) have. It's an economic decision, not an artistic one."

That efficiency doesn't directly affect Carmike's bottom line, Patrick contends.

"We don't make copies of prints," Patrick says. "Prints -- copies -- are made by the studios and sent to us, so there's virtually no savings on that end for us. There's savings for the studios, because they make the prints."

Rather, Carmike decided to go digital because the format expands the programming possible in movie theaters.

"The best thing is alternative content, like the Hannah Montana/ Miley Cyrus concert," Patrick says. "We got to play that in 300 locations. We can tap our screens during, say, a dead Tuesday evening, and put something that is going to do $3,000 to $4,000 on that screen that would have done $8 on a Tuesday night. That concert was only available in digital. And until 'Batman' ('The Dark Knight'), it was our third-largest opening picture ever. If you didn't have digital, you missed out."

"We've done some test locations of live delivery, where we're be able to deliver an opera or something like that live. We've done one football game and one basketball game live, and are hoping to do that more in the next year."

In theory, releasing a movie worldwide via download should help cut down on piracy. Traditionally, many film openings are staggered, opening in a few large markets first. This leaves ample opportunities for piracy before a film reaches many local screens.

Another advantage for downloadable digital cinema is that it doesn't degrade over time the way film does.

"It's the exact same way you see it every time," Patrick says. "Whereas with film, every time you run it through, you get cuts, scratches, microdots, burn dots on the screen. While digital is technically a lower resolution than film, your mind plays a trick on you. Because you don't see the scratches, the pops, the hisses, the dust, your mind will believe it's superior."

So far, the Carmike chain has the only area theaters that have switched to digital projection. But the tipping point might be just around the bend.

SouthSide Works Cinema still uses 35 mm film. But it has one digital projector that travels between the chain's seven theater locations for movies that require it or for special events.

"We're in the process of negotiating with a few companies to start the process towards digital," says Dave Huffman, director of marketing for Cleveland Cinemas, which owns SouthSide Works Cinema. "As an industry, everything is transitioning towards that, becuase it's just more efficient. Quality used to be a concern, but the quality now is comparable."

Kaboly, of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, doesn't see digital projection replacing film entirely.

"I don't think it will replace it 100 percent," he says. "It'll replace it 90 percent. There will always be certain theaters like ours, and in the institutions and museums, that will have film projectors. Because some things are only available through archives. When we get a rare print, we're very careful with it."

Pittsburgh Filmmakers does screen the odd film on digital, but that's mostly because of the growing number of new movies being shot on digital formats and not available on film. The Silk Screen and Three Rivers film festivals usually have a number of new, digital- only films.

Conversely, there always will be film purists -- like audiophiles who stick with vinyl instead of CDs and MP3s -- who choose film for aesthetic reasons.

"There are some people that will only project film, will only make movies with film," Kaboly says. "But those are few and fewer every year. Digital projection is getting better -- what can I say?"

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