The end of an era at the movies

Matt Zeiner, a technician with New England Theatre Service, works on wiring the sound system of a new digital projector, with the cover off exposing the lamp house of the unit, at Niantic Cinemas.

These film projectors have been workhorses since the 1950s, back when "Rear Window" and "Lady and the Tramp" were playing movie houses.

They've been fixtures at the 61-year-old Niantic Cinemas, flickering onto screens the likes of "Star Wars" and "E.T." and "The Godfather."

Over the last few weeks, they have, one by one, been taken out of commission. These machines - which were still working just fine, thank you - have been replaced by digital technology.

It's not something that the folks at Niantic necessarily wanted to do. It's something they had to do.

Actual film - the 35mm kind - is going the way of silent movies. It's disappearing after more than a century of feature films being, well, film.

Studios have decided to go entirely with digital, with most saying they'll no longer be making 35mm prints by some point in 2013.

The reasons are simple: digital means better clarity; it's necessary for effects like 3D; and - this is the most vital part - it's much less expensive.

Less expensive, that is, for the studios. It costs them upwards of $1,500 to create a 35mm print and ship it to theaters. When big movies are released wide, that means making and sending out nearly 4,000 prints.

Creating a digital copy runs more in the modest neighborhood of $150.

Two years ago, former Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock was quoted in Variety as saying, "Distributing movies digitally into theaters has been the holy grail of the studios. They stand to eliminate billions of dollars in costs in coming years without spending very much."

For theaters, though, it's not a money-making proposition. Quite the opposite, in fact. It can cost owners between $55,000 and $60,000 per screen to install digital projectors. That's a huge expense, especially for independently owned operations.

Yes, there is a thing called a virtual print fee, which distributors are offering theaters to help defray that cost, but some complicated issues swirl around that. More on the issue later.

The reality is, going digital doesn't mean theaters are going to make more money; it doesn't mean more people will buy tickets.

Bill Dougherty, owner of Olde Mistick Village Art Cinemas, says, "It goes back to what I always say: It's all about the story on the big white square. If you're telling a good story, they'll come. If you're not telling a good story, digital is certainly not going to be a savior."

Previous innovations - stadium seating, digital sound - were optional. Digital is not. As Dougherty puts it, "Either you do it, or you're done."

Olde Mistick Village Art Cinemas, which is running on its original 1973 equipment, won't go digital until later this year or early next year.

Madison Art Cinemas owner Arnold Gorlick will convert his theater in August or September. Since it's an expensive process, he waited to do it until he had negotiated a reduction in his rent.

Multiplexes and national chains were, perhaps inevitably, among the first to go digital. Now, more than half the theaters have converted, with small, independently owned cinemas slowly following suit.

Joe Couillard, general manager of Niantic Cinemas, says, "At first, we were definitely dragging our feet and nostalgic, but now, after we've seen it in action and have been working with it for a week or two - it's the best thing ever. It really is."

He describes the picture as being "just beautiful, a crystal clear picture."

Even more important: it stays that way. Four or five weeks down the line, it will look the same as the first day it was screened.

"With film, you'd get dust sometimes. You'd get those black specks or maybe you'd get a scratch on the film. But you don't get any of that with the digital," Couillard says.

A movie not only looks different with digital, but it sounds better, too. A sound upgrade is a requirement of converting to digital. The newest of Niantic's five theaters already had 5.1 surround sound, but the rest - three of them were mono, with a single speaker behind the screen - had to be upgraded.

As is usually the case, the more updated the technology is, the less it needs to be monitored. While a movie was being screened in the past, Niantic Cinemas had an employee staying full-time with the film projectors, making sure they were running correctly.

The digital projection doesn't require that kind of attention.

"It's all programmed once a week with show times, and that's pretty much it," Couillard says. "I'll come in Friday, program all the shows and movies, and that's it for the week."

(Niantic, by the way, has moved the person who handled the projectors over to concession and ticket sales.)

The hard drive of a movie is about the size of an old videotape box. It's slipped into a server, which runs the digital projector. The film company emails to the theater manager a digital code that unlocks the film. The manager can then load that film onto one - or multiple - projectors. Consequently, distributors only need to send one hard drive to multiplexes that show a single blockbuster on several screens.

"It's going to be funny, walking into the booth and not hearing the projector run," Gorlick says. "The film won't be running through it. We won't be handling film any more."

Since studios/distributors are saving so much money with the switch to digital, they have offered to pay theaters a "Virtual Print Fee" to help defray the cost to exhibitors of re-equipping for digital cinema. It's a fee paid to theaters when they book a first-run film - with all kinds of rules attached. If a theater starts showing a movie within a certain amount of time from its official release, the theater could get a certain dollar figure in VPFs. If it starts the movie after that time period, it could get less. VPFs are paid for a finite time only, or until the costs for the digital conversion are recouped, whichever comes first.

The details get a little complicated. Theaters have to go through "integrators" who mediate the VPF and the standards under which a venue would get reimbursed. The integrators also take a percentage of that fee. (The top reimbursement to an exhibitor after the integrator takes a percentage seems to be around $700.)

Among the requirements to receive a VPF, theaters either have to put their own staff on call 24 hours a day with a monitoring system, or they have to be connected to a national operations center. The center monitors the projectors 24 hours a day and could, say, anticipate a software failure. There's a monthly fee per screen for using one of those centers.

Regardless of a venue's choice on that front, in order for a theater to be eligible for a VPF, the studios require 24-hour connectivity to a theater's projectors, via a cable connection. Through that, distributors can monitor constantly what's happening with those projectors - what is being projected and when. It all might seem a bit Big Brotherish.

"I resent them considering themselves my partner and involving themselves in the administration of my business when, really, it is we who have done them a favor," Gorlick says. "It's not to give them the opportunity to have such total control of my theater. Now, there are dishonest people. I'm sure there are people who have violated their licensing agreement, moving pictures around, but it's not been the case with me."

A more concrete question remains, too: What happens to all these film projectors that have been put out of service?

Niantic Cinemas - which is planning on turning one of its theaters into a 3D-capable site - hasn't decided what to do with its old projectors yet.

Most from other theaters have simply ended up as scrap metal.

"It's sad," Dougherty says. "I've seen pictures of dumpsters filled with old projection systems, just melting them down like they were nothing."

And the film era fades to black.

Joe Couillard of Niantic Cinemas holds one of the digital movies that are shown with the new digital projectors at the cinema.
Joe Couillard of Niantic Cinemas holds one of the digital movies that are shown with the new digital projectors at the cinema.
Joe Couillard of Niantic Cinemas shows one of the '50s-era projectors that the new digital projectors are replacing at the cinema.
Joe Couillard of Niantic Cinemas shows one of the '50s-era projectors that the new digital projectors are replacing at the cinema.


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