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Changeover in film technology spells end for age of analog

Theaters are being forced to invest in new equipment as 35mm technology becomes obsolete

At 24 frames and 18 inches per second, or 90 feet per minute, film negatives rush by at lightning speed, illuminated by the brilliance of burning carbon. A 75-year-old machine at the Avon Cinema still functions with the same projection technology it did when it was installed in February 1938.

But now theaters are being forced to go digital, said Peter DuBeil, a projectionist at the Avon.

The tide is overwhelmingly turning toward digital media, and by the end of 2013, most major production companies will complete the shift from 35mm film prints to the more advanced digital projection technology — a shift that has had resounding impact on independent cinemas around Providence.

The debate between analog and digital media has been a perennial conflict across the arts in areas such as music and photography, and the film industry is the most recent to confront the shift.


Silver screen becomes a machine

Digital projections are far more cost-effective for film studios, said Daniel Kamil, owner of Cable Car Cinema. It can cost between $2,500 and $3,500 for a company to “strike prints” on 35mm film, he added.

35mm prints also risk degradation. Every time they screen, the film is slightly damaged and quality worsens, said Richard Dulgarian, owner of the Avon.

“(Digital film) is less subject to damage,” said Chris Mulligan, a projectionist at Cable Car Cinema.

For digital films, studios package movies on a hard drive with anti-piracy protections to be sent to theaters to screen, Dulgarian said.

With uniform, dedicated technology for film screenings, it is easier for everyone to play through the same medium industry-wide, Mulligan said.

“You kind of push a button and walk away,” DuBeil said.

Mulligan also described the “dark underbelly” of this transition — if a theater does not make the shift, it will inevitably go out of business.

Digital media also facilitates 3D projections, which sell more tickets, Mulligan said, emphasizing the greed he perceives in major film producers who care more about profit than the welfare of theaters.


A tale of two films  

In general, film studios own prints of their films, which they then license to theaters to screen, Kamil explained, adding that studios have vast archives of film reels. But because the transition from film to digital is expensive, the studios most likely will not transfer all of their film to the digital projection format.

“There’s a lot of films that are going to get lost,” he said.

It is difficult to judge the quality of the new projection, Mulligan said, adding that it is a matter of taste — his own preference is film because it is “more soothing” due to a different light quality, which Kamil described as “soft” and “earthy.”

“If you like the look of it, that’s going away,” Dulgarian said of 35mm film, adding that the average viewer might not notice the difference.

But while certain aspects of film might be lost, the image and sound clarity improve in digital screenings, Kamil said.

After viewing a demonstration of the new projection technology, Dulgarian said the picture is brighter with better resolution and focus.

“I was very impressed by how sharp it was, how vibrant the colors were,” he said.

Digital projections will also positively affect distribution range, Mulligan said, explaining that small studios without the funds to release 35mm prints are more likely to have the means to produce digital films for release.


Plot twist

Major theater chains, such as the one Providence Place Cinema belongs to, receive subsidies from production companies to switch to digital film technologies. Approximately 80 percent of screens have made the transition with this funding, Kamil previously told The Herald.

Providence Place made the change in February, said Ryan, a Providence Place employee who could not provide his full name because he did not have permission from the corporate office.

The Avon will upgrade its equipment, including sound systems, within the next two months, Dulgarian said, adding that the project will cost an estimated $80,000 to $100,000 of his own money. The studios are the only ones that benefit financially from the transition, he said.

The Avon will keep its film projector in case of future opportunities to screen films — “It’s still a wonderful format,” Dulgarian said.

Cable Car has encountered a greater struggle in funding the transition. For the past month, the theater has undertaken an online fundraising campaign through Kickstarter to raise the necessary capital, approximately $42,000. With two weeks remaining, the project is two-thirds complete.

Digital projectors do not require a projectionist, Dulgarian said. As a result, approximately half of his projectionists are leaving the theater, while the other half are taking up his offer to work at the theater in a different capacity.

“It will become a lost trade,” said DuBeil, who has been a projectionist for most of his life. With the advent of new technology, he is losing his job and the usefulness of an acquired skill.

Already semi-retired, DuBeil said Sunday may have marked his last day as a projectionist before switching to part-time work tearing tickets at the Avon.

Mulligan said he is still unsure how his job at the Cable Car will evolve with the advent of digital technology.

“I don’t expect it to be radically different or much more difficult,” he said, explaining that the job will be much less hands-on because there is no “behind-the-scenes building and breaking films.” At the Cable Car, 35mm reels require assembly from 20-minute segments that get taped together.

“It’s sort of cataclysmic,” Kamil previously told The Herald, adding that smaller theaters not making the transition will not be able to provide relevant programming.

“I’m nervous,” he said. “I don’t really have a plan B.”


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