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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AP Images

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."

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.

But studios say that the move away from 35mm not only makes financial and technical sense, but that there's a demand for digital—and that quality is part of the reason why.

"The fact of the matter is, we get just as many requests at the studio for our library of restored films from theaters to show them digitally as we do for new prints," says Grover Crisp, executive vice president at Sony Pictures. "We've tried to accommodate both aspects of this, and for many of our restored titles we record out to a new negative that has the entire cleanup that the digital does, and we make a few select prints. Those are for the venues that can show film, and then we have the DCP for the venues that can show digital."

"There is a tradeoff, however," Crisp continued. "The manufacturing process of the prints is a degrading process. Even if you have a brand-new digitally restored negative that you make a print from—it will look very good, probably be the best looking print you've ever made—it still won't look as good as the digital in terms of sharpness and detail, because you're not going through that photo mechanical process of making a print."

Reparatory theater directors are divided on whether digital can ever match or exceed film. "In an ideal world, right now, I would prefer to show a pristine 35mm print," Schwartz says. "But the quality of the DCP is extremely close. In some cases, there are advantages. Sometimes the soundtrack will be better, because it is digital sound. Sometimes there will be a brighter image."

In March, Film Forum in New York City is launching a week-long series called "This is DCP." A test of run of sorts, the series is designed to present some of the best DCP restorations available and let the audience decide if the experience is worth it. "I'm on the fence on the DCP," says Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at the Film Forum and founder of Rialto Pictures. It was only after Crisp sent Goldstein some of the new 4K restorations they were preparing at Sony that he was convinced to give the format a chance. "Some of the DCP's are absolutely spectacular."

"I thought our doing the series would be really controversial," Goldstein says of the 'This Is DCP' program, which features classic titles such as Dr. Strangelove, The Searchers, and The Red Shoes. "I only got really positive response from everybody on the series idea."

Crisp, who will be present during the series at Film Forum for after screening discussions, is hoping to convince a skeptical audience. "I'm trying to get ahead of the curve," Crisp says, "and I want people who are film fans to understand that there are some of us who are trying to do this so that you have a really good cinematic experience. But, they have to get on board that it can be good."