Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling 

Thursday, Apr 12 2012
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For this privilege, exhibitors can expect to shell out from $70,000 to $150,000 per screen. Because the studios will save so much money on shipping costs, they've agreed to help finance the conversion. For the next 10 years, they will pay theater owners a "virtual-print fee" for each new release shown digitally.

To speed the conversions along, the studios are using a classic carrot-and-stick model of coercion. The offset money is the carrot. The punishing stick? Studios will no longer be releasing 35 mm prints.

It's not so bad for first-run theater chains, which play only new releases. Art-house and repertory theaters, however, which play classic and older movies, are largely dependent on print loans from studios. Increasingly, the prints are remaining locked in studio vaults. Last November, 20th Century Fox sent its exhibitors a letter to that effect: "The date is fast approaching when 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight will adopt the digital format as the only format in which it will theatrically distribute its films. ... We strongly advise those exhibitors that have not yet done so to take immediate steps to convert their theaters to digital projection systems."

click to flip through (7) PHOTO BY JENNIE WARREN - Ross Lipman, restorationist, UCLA Film & Television Archive
  • Ross Lipman, restorationist, UCLA Film & Television Archive

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John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, drove the point home at the association's annual convention last year in Las Vegas. "Simply put," he said, "If you don't make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business."

Belove, of Cinefamily, believes many theaters will choose just that.

"Hundreds of art houses will go out of business," he says. "Already some theaters are shoving under."

Belove recently returned from a conference of art-house theater owners. Most of the attendees were operating on annual budgets of less than $500,000. Upgrading on that budget is prohibitively expensive.

"The pressure's on me," he says. "I know I'm going to be forced to do a major outlay."

But the alternative also is lousy. Already there are films he couldn't show for lack of a DCP-compliant projector. He couldn't get a print of A New Leaf from Paramount for an Elaine May retrospective he wanted to do. Ditto for Saul Bass' Phase IV for a Bass retrospective, and Andrzej Zulawski's The Important Thing Is to Love for a Zulawski retrospective. Studio Canal in France would supply only a DCP.

"This is classic cinematheque stuff," Belove says with frustration.

And then there was Valentine's Day. Instead of a 35mm print, the studio offered Belove either a DCP or a DVD of Breakfast at Tiffany's.

While Cinefamily couldn't show the DCP version without a costly upgrade, it could choose to show a DVD or Blu-ray. Blown up on the big screen, however, a relatively low-resolution DVD looks, in Belove's opinion, terrible.

"We can look at a DVD right now," he says, walking into the darkened auditorium. On the screen, a trailer is playing. A man and a woman are having sex. "See how the blacks aren't black?" Belove whispers. "That's DVD. Look at the textures. Look at his jacket. Look at his face. You can't see a lot of detail."

After the trailer, the feature begins. "OK," he says, "now it's film. See how much blacker the black is?"

Stepping outside, Belove lights a cigarette and runs a hand through his hair. "Why would I charge people for a format they could see at home?"

For Valentine's Day, he passed on a DVD of the Audrey Hepburn vehicle and played a 35mm print of F.W. Murnau's melodrama Sunrise instead.

While the push to digital and corresponding clampdown on prints make sense to studio bean counters, it is madness for independent theaters. At best, it forces repertory programming to become dull. DCPs are only available for film's "greatest hits," not for the obscure gems people expect from independent theaters.

At worst, it takes away the flexibility that small organizations need if they are to survive. The studios' "virtual-print fee" contracts come with restrictions on which films a theater can show, and when. The exact terms vary. But since exhibitors are required to sign nondisclosure agreements, they can't compare deals.

And the clock is ticking: There is a time limit on the studios' offer to help pay for new equipment. Belove has until fall 2012 to decide whether to upgrade. After that, the virtual-print fee offer expires and he'll have to pay full price. He shrugs. "They've got much bigger fish to fry," he says of the studios. "There's no reason for them to care if 500 little theaters ... "

His voice trails off. "I mean, I don't see a solution to it. It's going to take a major movement."

One employee at the New Beverly Cinema on Beverly Boulevard hopes to inspire just such a movement. Julia Marchese started her online petition "Fight for 35mm" last November. Within hours, a thousand people had signed. By February, she'd collected more than 10,000 signatures.

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