The art of cinema has adapted to new technology over the years – the shift from silent to sound, from black & white to color, from practical effects to CGI. But the method of putting illuminated moving images up on a screen has remained relatively unchanged for the better part of a century. At least, until now.
For the past twenty-five years filmmakers and studios have been gradually embracing a digital trajectory, beginning with the widespread adoption of computer generated effects in the 90s, and then digital cinematography a decade later.
Now, some ten years after Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (the first blockbuster shot entirely on digital), another seismic shift is on the horizon. In fact, it’s right on our doorstep, and most people aren’t even aware of it. For studios, the next logical step in this progression of technology is digital projection. The cost savings of shooting on film vs. digital is not inconsequential, but the cost of film stock for a movie is a drop in the bucket compared to what studios spend making prints for distribution. A single print can cost $2,000, (multiplied by 4,000 screens for a wide release = about $8 million.) In contrast, producing a digital copy costs less than 200 bucks.
It’s a huge savings, equal to maybe 5 or 10 percent of a film’s budget, so for obvious reasons there’s a lot of incentive for studios to push this change. The only stumbling block has been theater owners. Even though the studios stand to gain a windfall from digital projection, they’ve left the burden of paying for necessary upgrades to exhibitors. And considering theaters only get to keep 10 to 20 percent of their ticket sales, their reluctance has been understandable.
For the past year or so, the studios have been using a “stick and carrot” approach. Theaters who dragged their feet making upgrades or who didn’t show a certain number of digital films might find themselves denied prints for highly anticipated movies until a week or two after the national release date.
In turn, studios offered a “virtual print fee” program. For every digital print a theater booked, they were given a cut of the savings. But even then, the studios couldn’t see past their own greed. They capped the amount, which left exhibitors gaining only a small fraction of the digital upgrade costs which can run $150,000-per-screen. And rather than work with smaller chains and indie theaters who might take longer to scrape together the necessary financing, the studios imposed a September 30th deadline. Literally too little, too late.
Nevertheless, most theater chains have resigned themselves to the inevitable. 20th Century Fox recently announced that they will soon “adopt the digital format as the only format in which it will theatrically distribute its films.” More studios are sure to follow, and the fallout is likely to be severe. The National Association of Theater Owners estimates that 10 to 20 percent of theaters will close their doors. The vast majority of casualties will be small chains and art theaters, and the mom-and-pop screens.
Drive-ins have been on the endangered species list for years, and are likely to be hit particularly hard. If there’s a drive-in near you, and you’re the least bit nostalgic you might want to catch a double feature before the end of the summer – it could literally be your last chance.
Another side effect of the switch to digital projection that has received little discussion so far is archiving. Film is the most stable archiving medium for motion pictures, and it offers a 200 to 500 year storage life. Digital storage doesn’t even come close, and it’s not clear whether studios have a plan to address this issue.
It’s scary to think about how much could disappear over time, the way so many old silent films were lost to flammable nitrate film stock. (Although, if Battleship got deleted off Universal Pictures’ giant master harddrive… well, worse things have happened.)
In the second part of this series, we’ll take a look at behind-the-scenes video from a theater projection room with a side-by-side comparison of a traditional 35mm projector – and the new digital projector that’s taking it’s place. Stay tuned…
Dave_P studied fine arts and film history and is a graphic and web designer, and a diehard movie fan. David has been involved with a variety film festivals including the Cinephile Film Festival, the PRIDE Film festival, and the Manhattan Short Film festival, and is currently the director of the Dark Carnival Film Fest in Bloomington, Indiana. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)