As 35mm Film Dies, How Do Revival Theaters Cope?

The cost to update to digital projection can be prohibitive for independent cinemas showing classic movies—and many think it's not an upgrade at all.

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The reports of film's death have been exaggerated. While in danger of becoming a fetish object for specialists, celluloid is not going away. It will always exist.

Whether we'll be able to see it, though, is something else entirely.

For decades, independent repertory theaters have relied on 35mm film stock for everything from midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to matinee Akira Kurosawa retrospectives. But with first-run movies reportedly making the transition completely over to digital projection by 2013, many repertory programmers and owners fear that the classics will quickly follow suit, making it harder for revival cinemas to show old movies in their original format. Already, some in the industry say that major movie studios have clamped down on the number of classic reels they'll loan out—meaning that small theaters showing throwback films may need to adapt.

"I would say, more and more these days, we are told by a studio that they can only provide a digital copy," says David Schwartz, chief curator at New York's Museum of the Moving Image. "There are even cases where they suggest we even just go out and get a Blu-Ray. Much more common is getting a DCP of a film."

"More and more these days, we are told by a studio that they can only provide a digital copy," says one film curator.

The DCP (Digital Cinema Package) is the standard for projected digital cinema, a collection of media files with specifications set by the Digital Cinema Initiatives, a joint venture between Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal, and Warner Bros. Studios. Delivered to a theater via hard drive, the equipment to project these files often costs upwards of $75,000, a burden far too heavy for many small theaters.

Marty Rubin, associate director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, doesn't think the visual aspects of a DCP measures up to a 35mm print, giving the example of a recent screening of Tommy as lacking in sharpness and detail. Others say the flat digital image can't match the robustness of celluloid. "There is a special quality to the experience of seeing a film in 35mm," Rubin says. "It has an impact. People may not even be consciously aware of it, but when you start giving them someone else, they might have less and less of that special feeling when they do see a movie at the theater and start drifting away."

Julia Marchese, an employee at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, created a "Fight for 35mm" petition, which is currently close to its goal of 10,000 signatures.

"For revival houses, the threat is less imminent [than for first-run theaters], but more severe," she says. "Most independent theaters are struggling to remain open as it is, and this may be the final blow which kills them off forever."

Theaters that can't afford the DCI-compliant equipment may eventually go out of business, or survive on the limited amount of prints available to them; even without the studios, there are still archives and private collectors that own prints and are open to working with smaller theaters. The theaters that can afford the equipment will tip-toe their way in to the digital world. The attitude, maybe because there is no choice, is that film and digital will exist side by side, and there is not much we can do about it. Digital will be the norm, and film will become a precious object.

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Craig Hubert is a freelance writer based in New York.

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