The Challenges of Digital Projection, Part 1: The Theaters

Esthetically speaking, I see no problem with digital projection. Under the best of conditions, 2K DCP projection looks better than 35mm film–and 4K looks better than 2K. An incompetent projectionist can ruin a digital presentation, of course, but with film, they can ruin the presentation and the print. As transitions go, digital hardly changes the movie-going experience; the medium changed far more drastically with sound, color, and widescreen.

But the picture doesn’t look so bright or sharp when you consider the economics. From that perspective, the ongoing digital conversion looks almost like a scam. It requires theaters to invest huge sums of money so that the major studios can cut expenses. Installing digital projectors and the required servers cost from $60,000 to $100,000 per screen, and offers no obvious financial advantage to the theaters. But it saves distributors from the considerable expense of making thousands of prints per title.

Actually, digital projection does provide one financial advantage to theaters: survival. The major studios are phasing out film as a distribution medium. It’s unlikely that, two years from now, any theater will be able to screen a new Hollywood or Indiewood picture without a DCP-capable digital projector.

For the large theater chains, with their reservoirs of cash and economy of scale, this isn’t an insurmountable problem. But for the smaller chains, the independent art houses, the few remaining revival theaters, and the non-profits, the challenge is a daunting one–and an absolutely vital one. Even classics and independent pictures may soon be unavailable on film.

The high conversion cost can be lowered by an arrangement called a Virtual Print Fee (VPF). A third party helps finance the new projector, and is paid back slowly by distributers, who turn over part of the money they save by not making prints. But a VPF comes with its own limitations; for instance, they may require that you only screen titles from major distributors willing to pay that fee.

How is this effecting our local art theaters? Will the specialty houses that make the Bay Area such a wonderful place for cinephiles manage this transition?

Some already have. The Castro, for instance, installed a DCP- and 3D-capable projector nearly three years ago. I checked with some other theaters and chains to find out about their plans:

Pacific Film Archive

The PFA is about as far from a commercial multiplex as a movie theater can get. Part of UC Berkeley, it’s devoted to preserving and exposing people to the history of cinema. It’s 40-year-old projectors can present 35mm in at least six different aspect ratios, and their audio equipment ranges from Dolby Digital to a piano for silent films.

Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby told me in an email that the PFA “has not yet invested in DCP projection.” Of course the PFA almost never screens new Hollywood and Indiewood films, and the classics are still available in 35mm–for the time being. ” We are a non-profit film archive and member of FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives). Consequently, we have a special status..and are trusted with many international print loans from archives and studios the world over.”

An archive, by its nature, must be able to project a wide variety of old and new formats. “Looking ahead, we will need to address DCP, but we might not have that full capability until we move to our new building in downtown Berkeley. If someone would like to donate funds to the PFA for this purpose this would be greatly appreciated!!”

Susan, let me go on record: Set up a fund for that purpose, and I will make the first donation. On the other hand, it may not cover a tenth of a percent of the cost.

Landmark Theaters

Landmark is the closest thing to a major theater chain that I cover at Bayflicks. The company runs 54 theaters throughout the US, with 242 screens between them. That’s small potatoes compared to AMC, but I believe that it’s the largest chain in the country specializing in Indiewood and true independent cinema (with some blockbusters thrown in).

Three of those theaters and 15 of those screens are near my East Bay home, and only two of those screens, both at the Shattuck, have digital projectors. To find out how Landmark is handling the conversion, I talked to CEO Ted Mundorff.

“I don’t know if [digital projectors are] outrageously expensive. [2/23/12; author’s note: Mr. Mundorff has asked me to clarify that he knows what digital projectors cost; he just isn’t sure that the expense is outrageous.] Here’s the difference as I believe it: We could actually equip a booth cheaper with digital than with 35mm. But down the line is a concern…We know from owning computers that we replace them every three to five years. That’s going to be an ongoing expense.”

Mundorff predicts that Landmark’s screens will be all digital by the end of 2013. But it’s “a huge exposure financially…It’s not something we volunteer to do, it’s something we have to do.”

Actually, Mundorff was mostly concerned with how VPF financing will hurt the small distributors. I’ll cover that in The Challenges of Digital Projection, Part 2.


Run by the non-profit California Film Institute, this three-screen venue shows mostly new Indiewood and true independent cinema, with some classics and special events. When the CFI restored this aging palace, they kept the downstairs intact but converted the balcony into two small theaters.

In an email, Director of Programming Richard Peterson informed me that the Rafael has DLP in one of the upstairs theaters (where they’re currently screening Pina 3-D–anything new in 3D is pretty much a give-away of digital projection). “Currently we are investigating the best unit for us to acquire for the main auditorium downstairs. It will have to be capable of the finest quality presentation, for our advance screenings…with talent in attendance.”

They don’t plan to remove their 35mm projectors to accommodate the digital ones (often a requirement in multiplexes for space reasons, but a really bad plan for an art house). “We stand behind our 35mm equipment and will show 35mm as long as it is available.”

Cerrito & Elmwood

Both of these East Bay theaters are owned by Rialto Cinemas. They show mostly a combination of Hollywood and Indiewood fare, along with special events and broadcast stage plays. The Cerrito also shows classics once a month.

To find out Rialto’s plans, I exchanged emails with Proprietor Ky J. Boyd. They plan to install DCP-capable equipment in both theaters this spring, while retaining their 35mm projectors. “Converting to DCI compliant projection is a huge investment but a necessary one for the theatres to continue to be vital.”

Yet Rialto seems willing to make additional investments. “At the Elmwood the conversion will result in some additional upgrades as well. The screen in the main-floor auditorium will become larger, thus creating a more immersive experience, and we will be doing some sound upgrades in the two upstairs theatres.”

In short, most of these Bay Area art houses are making this change because they have to, and hopefully they will be able to absorb the cost.

But will they be able to show independent films and classics after the transition? Stay tuned for Part 2.

2 thoughts on “The Challenges of Digital Projection, Part 1: The Theaters

  1. Great article although I disagree strongly with the conclusions in your first paragraph. Looking forward to reading Part 2. I assume you’ve been keeping abreast of David Bordwell’s excellent series of recent articles on the digital transformation we find ourselves in. His most recent piece on archiving is particularly fascinating.

    Since all your quotes are from East Bay & North Bay venues, here are links to a couple of San Francisco perspectives (as of last fall anyway): Joel Shepard of YBCA, and Mike Keegan of the Roxie (Susan Oxtoby also quoted in the latter article.)

    1. I don’t really hate San Francisco. I actually communicated with people from the Castro, Balboa, and Vogue for this article. I just didn’t end up using anything from them in Part 1. I suspect I will in Part 2, however.

      And thanks for the links. I’m following David Bordwell’s blog, although I haven’t seen the piece on archiving.


Comments are closed.