Digital Projection WILL NOT Convert Art Houses Right Out of Existence!

There has been a lot of discussion recently among the mission-driven, independent art houses in the U.S. regarding the transition to digital. The art houses are stuck between a rock and a hard place due to the cost of DCI compliant (studio approved) equipment that would be necessary to show such cash cows as “Black Swan” or “The King’s Speech” — equipment that the art houses simply can’t afford — while the vast majority of the real indie movies that they play are not available in that format. Further angst is caused by the sense that it is only a matter of a few years before there simply are no more 35mm prints available. In the midst of a lot of doom and gloom, Russ Collins, the Executive Director of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor and a leader of the Art House Convergence wrote the following guest blog…

By Russ Collins

Maybe I’m just too much of an optimist. Instead of seeing digital cinema as a harbinger of Art House doom I see it as an exciting opportunity. Digital conversion AND the preservation of celluloid exhibition formats are, to me, soluble issues that will be most effectively addressed by “new model” community-based, mission-driven Art House cinemas. Digital cinema can provide wider, quicker access to both historic and contemporary cinema repertoire and is much more accommodating to local filmmakers. Additionally, we get the benefit of digital restoration on wonderful old celluloid movies.

That being said, anxiety is rational because there are many expensive issues ahead that will require creative problem solving. However, are these business complexities and unresolved technology issues of the “digital divide” in cinema exhibition really that different than the office equipment “digital divide” of the 1980s and 1990s? In the 1980s, office work began the tumultuous change from analogue typewriters, carbon copies, telephones, letters, reference books and filing cabinets to the modern digital world of copiers, fax machines, computers, networks, e-mail and Internet. Back then it was horrible for small businesses to contemplate the need to buy very expensive digital equipment, plus face the learning curve required to productively use the strange new computer programs, especially since good old typewriters, telephones, pale green accounting tablets and the postal service allowed generations of folks to conduct business without all the investment and learning required for the new digital office. I remember the feeling of being left behind as corporations, universities, law offices and other more “professional” organizations acquired this exotic digital equipment while I was stuck with my once proud IBM “Selectric” typewriter and a telephone. But, in time, and really a very short time, everyone had computers, printers, e-mail, accounting software and the Internet. Now we have cell phones, laptops, iPads and instant communications and access to a world of information anywhere, anytime – digital won, thank God! This digital office transformation was an expensive, mysterious and complicated process, but nobody (except Luddites) were left behind for long and it is now all perfectly normal and highly productive.

“New model” Art House cinemas are community-based and mission-driven. They embrace the need for revenue generated from sources beyond the typical sale of tickets and popcorn. Some “new model” operators address ancillary revenue with aggressive food and beverage sales. However, most “new model” Art House cinemas are non-profit organizations managed by professionals who are expert in community-based cinema programming, volunteer management and the solicitation of philanthropic support from local cinephiles and community mavens.

Like the mysteries of office technology in at the end of the 20th century, the intimidating expenses and format ambiguity of digital cinema exhibition will be resolved within a relatively short time. Not-for-profit cinemas will have the opportunity to raise funds from their local communities to acquire needed digital equipment and preserve their celluloid exhibition capabilities. A growing number of film archives will keep celluloid somewhat available and alive.

Who knows, maybe the increasingly available and inexpensive BluRay format and sub-DCI projectors (with essentially 1K resolution) will be the baseline Art House format. Is it logical to think that BluRay could become an even greater source for “prints”? Might BluRay be to Art Houses what 16mm was as a format and source of prints in the 60s, 70s and 80s? Or maybe methods developed by Emerging Pictures and its competitors will trump BluRay and beat the DCI equipment monster to become the standard. Maybe the cost DCI of equipment will fall sharply in two years – bottom line it’s just a bunch of computer equipment and software). Or perhaps the DCI format will simply implode due to its lack of flexibility and wrong-headed commercial manipulation by its manufacturers. Maybe DCI will be replaced by a cheaper and better form of digital cinema. Remember, IBM used to rule the PC world, however, long ago they left that world and the personal computer became better and cheaper.

Art House colleagues, we are not facing doom and gloom, cinema is merely experiencing change. Difficult to manage, yes, but I believe it will eventually be rewarding. Muster your creativity, hard work and the support of your community to build your success. The path to the resolution of this complicated matter is clearly not an easy one. However, like anything that is hard, “What does not kill you, will make you stronger.” And it will not kill you! Why? Because new model Art Houses are made resilient by their communities and their passionate commitment to the mission of promoting the art of cinema in theaters. The film lovers in your community who you have nurtured, who adore what you do will support you – trust them. New model Art House cinemas are not and are not likely to be in the vanguard of cinema technology, but we are something more important. In each of our communities we are the trustees of an incredibly important art form. Our communities need us and just as importantly, the art form needs us.

Digital cinema for the Art House invites many questions, but the question of Art House survival and viability is not an issue, not for the new model of Art House. These cinemas will figure it out. They will learn to use the new technology; they will grow and replace the old style Art House, creating future generations of cinema fans, cinema lovers and cinema artists. Yes, this is an optimistic view, but it is not an unrealistic view. Right now new model Art Houses operate successfully in towns and cities large and small throughout these United States. These theaters prove the benefit and effectiveness of the new model. It is a model that will survive this confusing and complicated era and live on to thrive, serve our communities and bolster the appreciation of the art and craft of great movies.

–Russ Collins, Art House Convergence & Michigan Theater-Ann Arbor


7 thoughts on “Digital Projection WILL NOT Convert Art Houses Right Out of Existence!”

  1. A great article, and a fine point. Far from charging the arthouse out of existence, a good digital projector and a Blu-ray disc opens up worlds of possiblities to arthouse theaters. DCI-compliant 2k images are virtually indistinguishable from a well-authored Blu-ray disc (and I have investigated this- including a side by side A/B demo on a 35 foot screen).

    But making a DCI-compliant file can cost an indie filmmaker $5k, plus a $600+ “virtual print fee” at each theater they play- whereas a well authored Bluray can cost as little as $500 (done professionally), with duplicates only about $20 apiece. With virtually no difference in quality, this is a big deal for indie film- and I think opens it up to some truly exciting opportunities.

  2. I feel it necessary to point out that there are major benefits of a digital server system, such as the one that Emerging offers. First and foremost, it standardizes the quality of the image and doesn’t require tweaking of projector settings from film to film.

    Then there is the issue of the funkiness of the Bluray standard. Not every disc can play on every player, and this is particularly true of discs that are burned on computers, rather than professionally mastered. I’ve heard of many shows lost to a frozen image in the middle of a show.

    Then there is the issue of depending on Fedex to deliver a physical copy. Some of my favorite moments are when I get a call from a panicked theater operator because their 35mm print or physical disc did not arrive. We can flip a switch, and in a matter of hours, have the film on the local server and save the show.

    Finally, if we care about the environment, physical copies eventually end up in the landfill, and are dependent on trucks and airplanes to get from place to place. Enough said.

  3. I have already benefited as a patron of Digital Arthouse Cinema. I often attend the Laemmle theater in Encino, California. They have equipped one of their auditoriums with a digital system in addition to a film projector. I spoke to the manager about it and they get a file over the internet. It is essentially Blu-ray quality and as it is a smaller screen it looks just fine. I was able to see titles including Seven Samurai in a theater and Breathless on a “big” screen-certainly MUCH larger than my TV!

    So I applaud the ingenuity of the theater owners and the distributer of titles like this. Without digital distribution and projection it would’ve been too costly and I would not have had the privilege of seeing these classics in the theater!

  4. A solid BluRay player is the key. We use the OPPO BDP-93 ($500) for features where no prints have been made and haven’t had any skips. Though we prefer to exhibit the actual light, density and texture of images captured on 35mm over a “digital representation” (especially films that were shot it this manner and particularly classics), we’ve found that this solution suits our purpose quite well for first-run films distributed in digital formats only…at least for now.

    Toby Leonard
    Belcourt Theatre
    Nashville, TN

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