Could digital projection save repertory cinema?

Ever since I joined forces with my partners Barry Rebo and Giovanni Cozzi to form Emerging Pictures, one of our goals was to use the new digital technologies to revive the idea of the neighborhood repertory cinema. At first, there was a lot of resistance…from filmmakers and from theater owners, both of whom were still married to the 35mm format. Over time, that resistance has worn down, as both filmmakers and theater owners began to realize the economic benefits of leaving 35mm behind. But perhaps more importantly, as they began to experience it in a theater, they realized that the compromise in picture quality was very minimal, and was compensated for by not having the degradation that goes along with running 35mm through a projector. The image was the same in week 3 as it was in week 1. It was the same in Oklahoma City as at the Zeigfeld.

But there was a big hole in our programming if we were going to truly be an old fashioned repertory cinema…classic films. While we were able to do occasional revivals through Rialto Pictures, the large film libraries, most of which are controlled by the major studios, were not open to us. Since we don’t adhere to the DCI standard set by the studios (where are the anti-trust folks when you need them?) we were not allowed to show the product–even though the same product was available on DVD through non-theatrical distributors.

Now, I’m pleased to report that we’ve broken through.

Starting this past February, Universal Pictures opened up their classic library to us. And just this month, Janus Films has done the same. While these two companies represent only a small portion of what we would eventually like to be playing, the two companies provide a very wide range of incredible films that deserve to be seen in the big screen. So why did these two companies decide to join us? In the case of Janus, they are a very forward thinking company that is clearly dealing with the ramifications of the digital revolution. If you haven’t checked out the Criterion web site lately, you should go over there and look at their new on-line streaming platform. It’s very impressive.

In Universal’s case, they had an additional motivation. You may recall that they had a massive fire on the Universal Studios lot last year. Along with the King Kong exhibit, a lot of 35mm archival prints were destroyed along with a number of HD masters. It will take quite some time before these material are replaced, assuming they ever are, given the limited theatrical market for classic films. Our platform is an ideal solution for the short term problem of supplying these films to the devoted art houses that are still out there fighting the good fight.

The Universal fire makes a good case for digital delivery being a way of preserving 35mm archival prints. These prints are getting more and more expensive to make, and I cringe to think about what happens every time they are shipped somewhere and run through a projector. No matter how much care is taken with them, shit happens. Lock them in a closet and bring them out only when necessary.

There is also the accessibility issue. Laemmle Theaters booked a series of the Universal titles and played them through our system in three Los Angeles area locations. Greg Laemmle told me that he hadn’t played any repertory titles in years because the advance guarantees and shipping charges for the prints made it a losing proposition. The three location mini-break was an experiment that would not have been feasible with 35mm prints.

What about the purists? No matter how close the image is to theatrical quality, there is no way to convince certain people that it will ever be as good as a 35mm image, and perhaps they are right. But my response is, you’ve got to come experience it. I’ve won over many cinemaphiles simply by getting them into a theater to look at the image. I think you’ll be shocked at how good it is.

So why am I ranting about this? Right now, at Emerging Cinemas all over the country, you have a chance to experience it for yourself. We’ve got a Hitchcock festival running, screenings of “The Big Lebowski” and an entire summer season of Essential Art House films from the Janus Collection.  Rediscover these films on the big screen with an audience, and support your local art house. Check out the Emerging Pictures web site for a location near you…and if there isn’t a location near you, let us know, and we’ll see what we can do.

In the meantime, if you attend any of the screenings, come back here and tell us about them.

6 thoughts on “Could digital projection save repertory cinema?”

  1. you are a genius and of course the model that our mentor Don Rugoff developed …lead on allow for a cultural legacy. I have a list with synopsis of at least 300 titles that I consider “Media That Matters”.
    So glad you’ve held onto your vision.
    Good luck and can’t wait to catch a show or two in my neighborhood.


  2. You need to get these films into the multiplex, or are the theater owners too squeezed by the studios to do that? I look at Fathom and those sat. delivery companies and wish they could put out better films more often that way. It’s only one screen at the multiplex for a couple of nights. Is that just not going to happen? Are you just recreating the art house in old art houses in college towns?

  3. Fathom may have more screens (which is our goal also), but the multiplexes have no idea how to handle local marketing the way their arthouse bretheren do. The major chains abdicated their responsibility to do any marketing to the major studios long ago. Without significant marketing expeditures, smaller film and older product don’t have a chance to get an audience, unless the exhibitors take the bull by the horns and do it themselves. Only the arthouses know how to do it right.

  4. Sure did enjoy you interview Independent film making In The Digital Era or as you implied (Independent film making In The PRE Digital Era) on the Producers Guild site.

    Loved the idea of “digital projection equipment, put into under utilized spaces (museums, performing arts centers, any auditorium that is underutilized (used part time or not used at all). Art centers that already have a constituency already (mailing list) (easy to reach) a match between people who would go to the venue and the films to be shown. They would do marketing they will have the overhead. A business model to only put in the projection equipment. Become the conduit for all the material they would show there.”

    I have been to screenings at:
    CORAL GABLES Bill Cosford Cinema
    FORT LAUDERDALE Cinema Paradiso

    so it was cool to see your tie-in, way to go.

    There is a new art house going into Coral Gables, FL you may want to check on that. The City of Coral Gables has a space they are leasing in their city parking lot.

    As an indi filmmaker (New Walden, Voice of the Camera) I have been trying to figure out a lot of the things you have outlined, I sure appreciate the incite and candid remarks! Thanks so much. Sincerely, Bruce Merwin

  5. Does Fathom do their own marketing then? How does that work with their multiplex stuff? I’ve seen them sell out shows that seem pretty niche to me, like their manga stuff, and I’ve thought that could work with other stuff.

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