Digital Projection

Movie technology is about to change–big time. And like its other big changes–sound, widescreen, home video–this one is going to be both a blessing and a curse.

Within the next few years, movie theaters will go digital, not just for sound, but for projection. That’s inevitable. What’s still in question is how much that change will be for the better, and how much for the worse.

Judging from what I’ve seen, I’d have to say the worse. But I’ve only seen first generation, 1.2k DLP projectors. Compared to 35mm film, their images look fuzzy and lack contrast.

But from what I’ve read, the latest 2K projectors are a huge improvement. And I’ve heard nothing but raves about Sony’s forthcoming 4K SXRD projector–and yes, I’ve heard these raves from people I trust. These advances could make a real improvement over 35mm release prints, especially when you consider that digital projection is steadier than film and less prone to wear and tear.

But will we ever see 4K projection in a commercial theater? Digital technology improves quickly–that’s the nature of the beast–but it can cost a lot of money to take advantage of those improvements. Today’s movies look sharper and clearer than films shot in the same formats 50 years ago, and they look that way even on a 50-year-old projector. That’s because the improvements are in the media; Kodak invents a better film stock and movies suddenly look better at no cost to the theater. But upgrading a 1.2K projector to 2K is a major investment.

Right now, high conversion costs are keeping digital projection out of most theaters. But as technology improves, older, less cutting-edge projectors will get cheaper. When “good enough” becomes cheap enough, digital installations will reach critical mass, the standard will lock, and that’s how movies in theaters will look. And if that’s 1.2K, it won’t be good enough for me.

We might get lucky. I know of no 2K setups in the Bay Area, but last March Landmark Theaters announced that it would install Sony’s 4K projectors in all of its theaters.

Even at 4K, the image will be noticeably different, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It will lack film’s barely perceivable shutter effect, a steady grid will replace random grain, and the picture will just not look like film. So what? Change is in the nature of the medium. Acetate film doesn’t look like nitrate, Eastmancolor doesn’t look like Technicolor, and you’ll never see Hamlet with the original cast.

If done right, digital projection could be wonderful, especially for the art and revival circuits (when it gets cheap enough for them to afford it). Film prints are expensive to make, maintain, and ship around the country, and this hurts the small art distributors more than the big studios. Some films get limited runs despite eager audiences because there aren’t enough prints to go around (Best of Youth is a recent example). Digital versions can be easily copied and distributed.

The same issues apply to revivals, which are caught in a vicious circle. Few theaters show old movies, so distributors don’t make new prints, which discourages theaters from showing old movies. Digital projection could break this cycle. Many classics these days are restored digitally, anyway.

If digital projection eventually means that the theaters I track on Bayflicks can show any film without print availability issues, and without loss of detail or contrast, I can live without the flicker.

What’s worth seeing? Believe it or not, I can’t offer a single new recommendation this week. The line-up is dominated by frameline29, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, and I can’t recommend any of the films in the lineup for the simple reason that I haven’t seen any. (In case you haven’t figured it out, LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. The people who organize this festival want to cover a lot of identities–they even have a film about Republicans.) But these three look promising.

Noteworthy: The Reception, Castro, Saturday evening. I haven’t seen it, and I haven’t read any reviews, but the story sounds intriguing. A mother and grown daughter, both white, confront each other and the black men in their lives–at least one of whom is gay. Part of frameline29.

Noteworthy: Just the Two of Us, Roxie, Saturday evening. If you want lighter gay film fare, this 1970 lesbian exploitation film (produced by Roger Corman) looks like a blast. Also part of frameline29.

Noteworthy: Happy Endings, Castro, Tuesday evening. A relationship comedy written and directed by Don (The Opposite of Sex) Roos. That alone is sufficiently promising. Another part of frameline29.