The Cinema Arts Center in Huntington recently reached out to the community asking for donations; the beloved independent movie theater needed to raise $200,000 or they would be forced to close within the year.
All money raised would go towards digital projectors, replacing the traditional film projectors that have been used for nearly 100 years.
“We really didn’t have a choice,” said Cinema Arts Center co-director Dylan Skolnik.
All over the country, movie theaters and Hollywood directors are converting to digital, but it’s a change that will force some theaters and filmmakers out of the industry if they can’t adapt.
“The industry is making this change, and you have to transition or close your doors,” Skolnik said. “It’s not optional.”
For almost a century, every major motion picture was shot and projected on 35mm film stock. This is what you would see rolling through the average theater’s projector at 24 frames per second, and it’s something you can actually hold in your hand.
In the past few years, however, studios like Fox and Warner Brothers have started to retire the format entirely.
Now, theaters are rapidly switching to digital, a cheaper option for studios who no longer have to mail out 10,000 reels of film for a two hour movie. Instead, what the theaters get is called a Digital Film Package, an encrypted hard drive or disc with the movie on it.
“Now, instead of shipping 50 pounds they’re shipping one pound, and instead of making photographic prints in a lab, they’re copying files onto a hard drive,” Skolnik said. “That’s a tremendous savings.”
This means that if a theater hopes to continue showing new releases, they must get rid of their old film projectors and substitute them for digital equipment, which costs about $65,000 per screen.
“For example, with ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ there are no 35mm prints of it,” Skolnik said. “It’s all digital. We’re showing that movie now, and if we hadn’t made the transition, we wouldn’t be able to show it.”
“Dallas Buyers Club,” distributed by Focus Features, has already made over $12 million at the box office, so venues like the Cinema Arts Center can’t afford not to screen these movies simply because they don’t have the technology.
For large multiplexes, this is not an issue, but independent venues are struggling to make the change due to financial restrictions. According to the National Association of Theater Owners, approximately 20% of theaters in America will not convert to digital, and as a result will likely close in the next few years. That’s over 10,000 screens.
It isn’t just in film projection that we’re seeing this transition take place: film to digital is a larger trend throughout the industry, with thousands of directors opting to shoot their movies digitally.
These directors include Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron, The Coen Brothers, George Lucas, and Martin Scorcese. Scorcese’s new film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” was shot 100% digitally, and the director says he never plans to touch film again.
On the other hand, old school filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino have sworn off adopting digital; Tarantino threatens to quit the industry if digital continues to take over.
“Digital is very good, but if you look closely you can see a difference, and film is definitely more beautiful,” said Skolnik. “There’s also just a special quality to film because it’s a physical medium, and it has a certain warmth that digital usually doesn’t have.”
Some argue that these directors are simply attached to film for sentimental reasons.
“The benefits of film are basically restrained to one’s sentimentality and familiarity with analog equipment,” said independent filmmaker Brad Roleandt. “Many older directors are attached to the materiality of film, something that can be physically cut and resorted, but with a generation of new filmmakers who were raised to take in digital space as reality, this distinction is unnecessary.”
Many of these indie filmmakers feel digital is the natural next step in the industry.
“Charlie Chaplin was against sound when it came out,” said independent filmmaker Dylan DeMarko. “Then he made ‘The Great Dictator.'”
But despite knowing this is where the industry is going, DeMarko said that for now, he still personally prefers to shoot on film.
“When you shoot digitally, you can get greedy and lazy because you can just keep rolling and cut later,” DeMarko said. “I’d rather have to fight my way out of a box than walk around aimlessly and deal with whatever I did later.”
This idea is one Tarantino himself has frequently expressed: when shooting on film, the camera is actually capturing still images onto a tangible product, which then has to be developed. With digital, the director is merely shooting onto a hard drive, like storing memory on a computer.
To many, the former process is a beautiful thing; to others, especially younger filmmakers, it’s simply not worth the expense.
“For someone my age, shooting on digital is basically my only option, but it’s also very beneficial to be experimenting on my own and to be able to immediately start filming when I see things on the street,” Roleandt said.
Ultimately, the visual differences between film and digital come down to personal preference, and at the end of the day, some find themselves ambivalent to the whole controversy.
“A 70mm film print beats a 4k digital scan any day, but to be honest, I just don’t care what you shoot your movie on,” said DeMarko. “It’s all going to the same place.”
The Cinema Arts Center was able to raise their $200,000 and now uses film projectors only to show older films on special occasions. All of their other screens are 100% digital.
Many other theaters have not been as lucky, though, and if the trend towards digital continues, many local multiplexes may not be around for much longer.
“There are theaters who have not been able to convert, especially when you’re talking about rural areas with theaters who are very vital to the community but who don’t make very much money,” said Skolnik. “It’s very sad, but those theaters are soon going to become a thing of the past.”