Film to digital: Seeing movies in a new light

Story highlights

Vast majority of theaters in U.S. have switched from film to digital

Benefits of new technology: versatility, efficiency, no wear and tear

But replacing film projectors is expensive, requires different skills to repair

Theaters upgrading to compete with other forms of entertainment

Atlanta CNN  — 

You take an elevator to the top level of the Regal Atlantic Station 16 movie theater, round a corner, enter through a security-coded door and head down some steps.

There it is: a wide, nondescript corridor interspersed with HVAC equipment and, more important, several giant slabs of electronics and server stacks. The touchscreens near each slab tell the story: “The Hangover 3,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Fast and Furious 6.”

This is the movie projection room, circa 2013.

What, you were expecting a black-walled compartment littered with film canisters and stray bits of celluloid and a dissolute, chain-smoking movie buff monitoring a clacking projector?

That era passed long ago, says Roger Frazee, Regal’s vice president of technical services. The vast majority of today’s theaters – 88%, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners – have made the jump to digital. “Films” are now 200-gigabyte hard drives, and “projectors” are those big electronic machines in the corridor, capable of working at multiple frame rates, transmitting closed-captioned subtitles and being monitored remotely.

And there’s no wear and tear, Frazee says.

In most theaters today you can no longer hear the ticking rumble of a projector, often audible in the back rows.

“The benefit of digital is, you don’t have damaged film. You don’t have scratched prints, and it looks as good in week six as it does on day one,” he said.

Indeed, a lot of film “traditions” have vanished with the changeover to digital. Gone are the days of those “cigarette burn” cue marks that popped up every 15 to 20 minutes, indicating a change in reels. Gone is the ticking rumble of the projector, often audible in the theater’s back rows. Gone are problems with the gate and the gears, though theater personnel still have to make sure their lenses are in good shape.

Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, which underwent a film-to-digital conversion of its eight screens last fall, still keeps a 35-millimeter film projector handy for its occasional airings of classic and independent features. But it hasn’t been used since November, General Manager Kevin Ward says.

In 2013, digital is it. “People are excited to get new technology,” he said.

Pros and cons of the black box

We still call them “motion pictures,” but a name that once referred to a series of still images being run through a projector at 24 frames per second is now been adapted for digital play. What was once chemical and mechanical is now electronic and computer-rendered: a series of JPEGs being riffled through a drive.

It’s been a huge change for the film industry. For a century, despite the additions of surround-sound audio systems and widescreen formats, the technology was more or less – pardon the term – static: a strip of celluloid, a series of sprockets and light.

Now? It’s a big black box, with its own pros and cons.

“I think the presentation is quite good with digital and new-release product,” said Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of theaters. “And clearly, it makes sense from a distribution standpoint to not print film prints. They’re very fragile, and you can scratch a film on its very first screening.”

The studios – and Technicolor and Deluxe, the two primary companies that “print” films – certainly appreciate this cost savings, since printing and shipping thousands of copies of a major release wasn’t a trivial expense. Mailing out hard drives is more efficient.

Moreover, League adds, if you had only one copy of a blockbuster film running in several auditoriums, you’d have to jury-rig a setup in which you would run the film through multiple projectors, an arrangement that was both clumsy and dangerous. “Now you can stagger your showtimes and play it on any number of screens you want to,” he said.

It’s also easier to maintain quality control – Regal oversees its equipment from a central location – and security. The systems at Regal and Landmark include passwords and keys that restrict a particular film to play at a particular theater (and on a particular projector) at a predetermined time.

But, of course, there are drawbacks.

The digital systems are expensive. Regal’s Frazee says that converting each individual auditorium in a multiplex from film to digital – in Regal’s case, generally using Sony equipment – costs upward of $75,000, and that’s not including audio systems or the various upgrades contained in its RPX (Regal Premium Experience) units. The projector bulbs also don’t come cheap: Depending on the size of the bulb, they’re $500 and up and incredibly delicate. Though smaller bulbs may last for a couple thousand hours, the larger bulbs may hold out for less than half that.

“That’s a thousand-dollar expense every month or so,” Frazee said.

Moreover, League says, there’s the issue of what to do if the box crashes. There are service plans, he points out, and the maintenance companies are very responsive, but it’s still a concern. Regal, for its part, has a staff of 60 technicians, spread throughout the country, to travel to afflicted theaters if a remote fix fails.

“I know how to tear apart a 35-millimeter projector, clean it and put it back together. I have no idea what’s going inside of that black monolith,” League said. “When you have a problem and it goes down, you lose the rest of the night. Before, with an Allen wrench and a rubber band, I could usually get it going for the next show.”

Competing for an audience

Perhaps the biggest challenge theaters face now is attracting an audience in the first place.

Today’s consumer electronics can provide a big-screen surround-sound experience without ever setting foot out your front door, and with the latest 4K HDTVs, it’s getting better all the time. Sure, the screen isn’t 15 feet high, and the Milk Duds are harder to come by, but if you’re willing to wait until the latest release comes out on Blu-ray, who needs the movie theater?

“This year, if Netflix and Sony stick to their plans, there will be early viewers with 4K Ultra HD televisions watching 4K movies on-demand,” wrote Variety’s David S. Cohen. “Meanwhile, movie theaters will still be taking delivery of 2K digital cinema packages on hard drives shipped by plane and truck. Home theater will have leapfrogged the cinema.”

Many theaters have upgraded to 4K themselves, but that doesn’t make them any less wary of the competition, says Regal’s Frazee.

“Home entertainment is one of our main competitors,” he said. But, he added, “Theater technology has always led the way, and I think it will continue to be the case.”

However, John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, says technology for movies is better all the way around.

“People who watch movies in the home are the people who come out the most to the cinemas,” he said. “What digital does is allow people to watch movies in lots of different places. That makes them bigger movie fans, (and) that means they come to our cinemas more often.”

He adds that the traditionally contentious relationship between studios and exhibitors – he describes it, with humorous bluntness, “as a very intense love-hate relationship” – has actually been pretty smooth when it comes to technology.

Studios, theater operators and equipment manufacturers came together to write standards and create formats, promote good quality levels – “so it’s an experience you can’t get in the home” – and develop a business model, he says. Moreover, “we’re working together in the use of digital cinema as well,” which means more targeted content and advertising.

Filmmaker and special-effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, who’s working on a high-frame-rate, ultravivid format, says that both studios and exhibitors should work harder on their product.

“I feel because of technical limitations in the exhibition business, the production values that (studios) are paying for are not arriving at the audience’s eyes. It’s dim, the screens are small, (and) the brightness is only one-tenth of what they see on television, and people unconsciously know that,” he said.

Making the most of the newest

If theater owners are to give the best experience to audiences, they have to make the most of technology – and they are, Fithian said.

“Our ticket prices have gone up at a pace slower than inflation over the last 40 years,” he said. “And that’s remarkable considering the change in the experience: We’ve got stadium seating instead of the old sloped floors; we’ve got not just digital projection but digital surround sound; we’ve got bigger screens; we’ve got all kinds of amenities.”

So, what of film? The old warhorse is fading (perhaps literally or worse, in the case of poorly stored celluloid). New movies are being released as digital-only, and if you want to run a classic in your theater, you’ve got to dig around a bit, says Landmark Midtown’s Ward. Theaters that don’t change are being left behind.

Filmmakers have mixed feelings about some of the changes. Clint Eastwood and Christopher Nolan remain partisans of photographing on film, but Steven Soderbergh enjoys the ease that’s come with shooting on digital. (Their films, of course, almost always end up being projected digitally.) Oscar-nominated “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth is also a fan, noting that it’s almost impossible to tell film from digital anymore.

“The proudest comment I get is, ‘What did you shoot “Dragon Tattoo” on?’ To me, if you can’t tell, we’re getting much closer. There are certain scenes that it’s indistinguishable,” he said last year.

Digital may be far more convenient to play with: There’s no constantly reloading film canisters or arranging reels in the projection room. But like an old 5¼-inch floppy disc, it might not be as playable or dependable in the long term.

Director Rob Meyer highlighted this concern at a Tribeca Film Festival panel in April. “We can find the first films ever made and still project them, and they’re gonna look great,” he said. Kodak has even introduced a film product for archival purposes.

Ward still keeps Landmark Midtown’s old 35-millimeter projector in shape. He has to: The parts are going to be as scarce as those for an Underwood typewriter.

“This is part of the 35-millimeter graveyard,” he said, showing off a dustcovered console and a variety of reels, components and spare parts. “We harvested parts because you won’t be able to buy these parts anymore, ever. We don’t know how long we’ll be able to run film. I kind of miss it.”