Anyone who follows the ongoing tug-of-war between Hollywood and Silicon Valley will inevitably encounter variations on two cherished themes of the Web-centric: 1) that Hollywood is corrupt, monopolistic, and greedy; and 2) that Hollywood is incapable of embracing technology. If we are to believe that either or both of these generalizations are fair, then what are we to make of the now-imminent shift to digital-only distribution for theatrical feature films? Are the studios throwing their weight around and crushing the little guy, or is this just part of the march of technological progress?
I admit the subject raises conflicting feelings for this particular film lover. The purist in me wants to keep celluloid around for as long as possible; the pragmatist (and semi-proficient DP) in me understands first-hand what digital cinema in general offers the independent film artist; and the humanist in me is sad to know that an estimated 1,000 small-town theaters will be shutting their doors. See this article from The Wrap.
The bottom line is this: by about the end of 2013, any movie theater that cannot project digitally will no longer be a movie theater. The major distributors will cease shipping 35mm film prints, which will save billions in printing and shipping costs. In general, the big chains are already digital, and some of the mid-market independents can afford to finance the new capital investment; but theaters serving small markets will either need to raise donated funds (between $65,000 and $200,000) or close up shop.
I happen to live in a community with a single-screen theater, one that I actually helped save a few years ago (with the promo below) when the business was up for sale, and our local film club wanted to purchase it. By “film club,” I’m referring to FilmColumbia, which hosts a wonderfully curated, small festival about to celebrate its 13th season this October. In addition to being home-base for the festival, the Crandell theatre in Chatham, NY shows first-run movies for less than half the cineplex ticket price, and it screens independent, art-house films on the weekends. The Crandell is truly the cultural and economic hub of the village of Chatham, and it is the only theater of its kind in the entire county. And this weekend, my colleagues and I are shooting a new promo to help raise funds to go digital.
Built in 1926, the Crandell had to foot the bill for another capital improvement within weeks of its opening — sound. The brass RCA plaque displayed above the ticket window is a reminder of a time when those who held patents on technology controlled both production and distribution, which more or less set the precedent for how the motion picture industry evolved for most of its history.
Today, the means of production, and at least certain kinds of distribution, are available to nearly everyone. At the same time, a whole generation is watching movies (legally and illegally) on computers, tablets, smart phones, and iPods. I suppose some might be tempted to wonder why bother trying to save this antique of actual brick and mortar. But the answer is a no-brainer for me: because the experience of going to the movies at your local, little theater has not lost any of its aesthetic value. In the same way that film still captures and reproduces textures that the best digital technologies have yet to match, the local theater experience is one not so easily quantified as it is felt. So, since I cannot possibly do anything about the future of celluloid projection, I can at least do my part to save a few seats for my friends and neighbors.
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