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In Defense of Digital Projection

Much has been written and said about the sea change underway from film to digital. A significant portion of it, springing from the “Save 35mm” camp, has (intentionally or not) cast digital projection as the bad guy.  Studios are about to stop striking celluloid prints of their new releases altogether, meaning that many repertory theaters, drive-ins, and independently-owned cinemas will go out of business if they cannot afford to convert. While that is no doubt tragic, it doesn’t mean that this digital conversion is bad. In fact, we are at the dawn of a new era, one that brings some positive benefits not only for motion picture studios and theater chains, but for regular moviegoers as well.

The benefit everyone already knows about is the picture quality of digital. This format affords viewers the chance to see a high-definition image with rich, deep colors, and an eye-popping level of detail. While film also provides a beautiful, if lower-def image, it degrades a little bit every time it runs through the gears of a projector, making it subject to scratches, faded color, and the need for splices. After weeks of unspooling at a theater, a film print can start looking really battered. A digital print, on the other hand, looks just as good on the 1,000th play as it does on the first. Hardcore cinephiles will talk about the “grain” and “texture” provided by the 35mm film they grew up with, but the fact is that most moviegoers don’t have that attachment. HDTV has become the norm in homes. Audiences will expect picture quality in the cinema that is commensurate with what they see at home. Digital projection gives them that, and helps to ensure that going out to the movies will remain a desirable form of entertainment. If theaters don’t make this transition, it could end up having disastrous effects down the road.

Another benefit is that digital is a much greener process. Vast amounts of resources and energy go into making thousands of celluloid prints of just one movie. Those prints are put on heavy reels, together weighing 50 to 75 pounds. The reels are packaged up and shipped by plane and truck to theaters. A single movie, going out on 2,000+ screens, incurs a great deal of expense in manufacturing, packaging materials, shipping/return shipping, and disposal. Now multiply that by all films currently in release at any given time. A digital movie comes on a small hard drive that is less expensive to make and ship, and which requires the use of fewer resources in its creation. It has, to use the popular lingo, a much smaller environmental footprint. This lower-cost option benefits you, as well. Cheaper manufacturing and shipping costs will likely help keep ticket price inflation to a minimum over the coming years. When the theater saves money, so will you, unless you spring for popcorn.

Another element that will help keep ticket prices as low as possible is the use of Virtual Print Fees (VPFs). Through this arrangement, a film distributor (Paramount Pictures, for example) pays a subsidy to a theater for digitally projecting one of its films. In other words, every time the digital print plays, the theater gets money to help offset the cost of upgrading its equipment. (It’s why many digital theaters play the movie, even if nobody buys a ticket). Distributors save money on manufacturing and shipping, they pass some of that savings on to the cinemas, and that reduces the need to hike up ticket prices, meaning less money coming out of your wallet when you want to see a movie.

Ticketbuyers get an additional advantage with digital projection, one that isn’t immediately obvious. With 35mm film, when a highly-anticipated movie like The Lord of the Rings came out, cinemas were limited by how many prints the studio would send them. Let’s say a theater got two prints. That meant they had two options. One was to put the movie in the two biggest auditoriums and turn people away when they sold out. The other option was a process known as “interlocking,” in which the film is threaded through one projector, then strung over to another projector to run simultaneously in another theater. While this could double the number of screens Lord of the Rings could show on, it also came with hazards. Interlocking required the projectors to be turned on at the exact same time, and if the gears of one projector turned slightly faster or slower than the gears of the other, the film could easily break. (Cue the angry audience.) This problem is solved with digital projection. The movie comes on a hard drive, which is loaded into the main system and easily accessed by any projector hooked into it. With the literal push of a button, a theater manager can add screens. If a hot ticket like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is selling out, and nobody’s buying for Escape Plan, that button can be pushed at the last minute, opening up hundreds more seats for the in-demand movie. For you, this means the likelihood of encountering a “Sold Out” sign at the box office goes down considerably.

On a related note, most digital projectors use a computer interface somewhat similar to Windows Media Player, which makes it easy to fix “accidents.” If you’re watching a movie during a thunderstorm and the power goes out, the projectionist can pick up from the exact spot you left off, or even rewind a little bit, once the power comes back on. With film, there’s no rewinding, meaning that you’d miss a small portion of the film from the interruption. Last year, I attended a movie where the sound didn’t kick in. A quick alert to the theater management solved the problem; someone went upstairs, turned the sound on, and started the movie over again. Functionality of this sort helps ensure you’ll have a positive viewing experience.

Is digital projection perfect? No, of course not. Any piece of equipment will have its own unique set of potential glitches and hiccups. That said, digital is cheaper on all fronts, it’s greener, and it makes it easier for you to see the movie you want, when you want, for a reasonable price, with a minimum of distractions. (It still can’t solve the problem of yo-yos using their cell phones during the movie, though.) No one wants to see any theaters go out of business because they can’t afford to convert, but digital is not the bad guy here. Cinemas need to keep up with the times in order to survive and continue providing us with the magic of movies. Digital will, in the end, keep theaters alive.

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