Keeping the Dark On

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.


© 2012, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • It will be easy to ensure that the experience of going to a brick and mortar theater is not lost: take the billions of dollars in savings on printing and shipping of celluloid, and pass those savings on to the customer. Not likely to happen, granted, but it’s debatable whether the industry (Hollywood studios) really cares.

    Theaters like the Crandell, obviously, will face a tougher challenge – it will be a daunting task for such independents to raise even the small sums of money they’ll need to replace or update their capabilities to show films in digital format. My guess is that some will survive, helped in large part by community efforts like the one you’re involved in, and most won’t.

    Personally I’ve never thought much of the movie-going thing, even when I was a kid, and while I loathe the trend of old businesses being replaced by Starbucks or converted into condos, I just don’t feel that great a sense of loss envisioning saying goodbye to crowded theaters with talkative audiences, ridiculously expensive prices, often uncomfortable or unclean seating….and then, dinner. How the average American family can continue with any regularity dropping the $100 – $150 it must take for an evening’s “entertainment” is beyond me.

    (By the way, “Missing the Crandell” is terrific – just as I’d expect from any David Newhoff “joint” – but I couldn’t help thinking, “Wonder what they paid for that popcorn? Because, boy, when we watch movies On Demand, we make our own popcorn, have a couple of glasses of wine, sit on our gloriously comfy sofa in our sweatpants, with our feet on the coffee table, pause if we have to for bathroom breaks, don’t have to deal with the two old ladies a row away telling the hero onscreen to watch out ’cause the bad guy is around the corner, or the juvenile delinquents in front of us texting and laughing. All we have to deal with our enormous labradoodle Mojo snoring -and we love that! – and it all costs a tiny fraction of going to the local cineplex.)

    Though this isn’t quite “on topic”, I have a strong feeling, too, that as we start to rely on a more “direct” method of distribution – such as Netflix, iTunes or whatever else is out there – the greater the likelihood is that we’ll start seeing a marked improvement in the quality of movies (which, let’s face it, isn’t exactly setting a high bar…) Yes, producers and distributors will have to re-think all over again their “demographics” algorithms, but producing and delivering content that people want to see instead of jamming Avatar 17 down their throats might well result in better movies made for more diverse audiences.

    Anyway, don’t mean to be a downer, but speaking only for myself I really won’t miss big Cineplexes at all, and while I hope for the best for the small independents, I think their communities will make clear with their support (or lack of it) how important they are.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Seth. Admittedly, I am likely to choose my couch and big monitor over a cineplex, but I’ll choose the local single-screen theater over my couch. Obviously, this comes down to personal taste. For one thing, it’s good to get out of the house. Then, because it’s local, I might run into someone I know — another filmmaker, a friend, the plumber who won’t return my calls. Then there’s the film itself. Unless everyone can afford $2million screening rooms, the steady migration toward smaller screens literally changes the craft. A newly restored version of Lawrence of Arabia is about to be released, and anyone who has the chance to see it on a movie screen in the proper aspect ratio really should. It is a lesson in both composition and editing, neither of which function the same on even the largest TV, let alone (heaven forbid) an iPod.

      Thank for your kind compliments of “Missing the Crandell.” That popcorn was in fact awful tasting gack we bought in bulk at WalMart or something. I called it “prop-corn.” But these are the depravities actors suffer for their craft as you know. The actual Crandell popcorn is the real deal, and the Crandell doesn’t charge movie chain prices for anything, which is why they could never afford to finance the switch to digital and will have to fundraise. We’re lucky to be in a community that will likely get it done.

      As for Hollywood “passing the savings on,” there have been financial aid offers from the industry to help theaters fund the investment, but those are, as you might guess, most appealing to the mid and large theaters. The cineplexes aren’t going anywhere. I think one very valid concern — and it’s an ongoing challenge throughout the production chain in the business — is once making these investments, will the technology be obsolete in two years? Imagine having to upgrade factories at the same rate at which iPhones release.

  • Hmm… For me movie theaters (even the multiplexes) are cathedrals. You can have a shrine at your home, but it ain’t the same thing.

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