The Challenges of Digital Projection, Part 2: Distribution

As the theatrical film industry moves to digital projection, will we still be able to watch independent films and classic movies on the big screen?

Last week I covered one major issue: How will small, independent theaters finance expensive new projectors and the servers required to run them? This week I’m covering the other side of the equation: Whether independent films and classic movies will continue to be theatrically available.

A brief recap: Very soon–maybe as early as next year–the major studios and their Indiewood subsidiaries will cease distributing new movies on film. They’ll come instead on hard drives, using a standard called Digital Cinema Package (DCP). For this to happen, the theaters must invest a great deal of money so that the studios can cut costs. One way around this problem is the Virtual Print Fee (VPF), where the distributors pay some of what they saved on not making prints to help pay off loans on the projectors.

The Small Distributor’s Delemma: The VPF

When a theater acquires a digital projector via a VPF deal, the financier makes the rules about what can be shown through that projector. And the primary rule they make is that you can only show films from companies that are willing to pay the VPF.

For a major Hollywood studio, the VPF arrangement makes sense. They currently spend a fortune making hundreds or even thousands of prints for a single title. Most of these prints play in only one multiplex before they’re destroyed. Paying the VPF doesn’t hurt them much.

But according to Landmark CEO Ted Mundorff, “Those plans become onerous to independent film distributors.” A small company might make only 20 prints of a title, and each of those prints will circulate between multiple theaters. “There’s no correlation between the fee and print costs,” in those situations, according to Mundorff.

It’s worth noting that many multiplex projection rooms can’t fit both a 35mm and a digital projector. Add one and you have to get rid of the other. This isn’t as much of a problem in revival houses, which tend to have large projection rooms.

Mundorff told me that he’s working with industry representatives to fix the problem. He couldn’t tell me anything about the plan, but he described himself as “hopeful that we can figure out a solution.”

Jan Klingelhofer, who books films for CinemaSF (the new, very small chain consisting of the Balboa and the Vogue), didn’t see it as much of a problem. “Many smaller distributors do not require DCI compliance,” he wrote me in an email, “and have not decided to eliminate 35mm prints. ”

Will There be a Place For Classics on the Big Screen?

I heard a distressing rumor a few weeks ago: Warner Brothers was no longer renting 35mm prints of old movies. Since few classics get the DCP treatment, this could spell the end of theatrical presentation of old movies.

Fortunately, the rumor proved false…sort of. the Castro‘s Brian Collette reassured me in an email that “Warner Bros. is getting much tougher to get prints from than in the past, but they haven’t stopped entirely.” In fact, “All WB titles on our January and February calendars…are in 35mm.”

But things are changing. “They stopped striking new prints a while back, so basically what is left is all they have. So once a print is retired and out of circulation you are then out of luck unless you want to run a Blu-ray (if one is commercially available…) or DVD.”

To my mind, and my eyes, Blu-ray is an acceptable format for theatrical projection–even on a screen as big as the Castro’s. It doesn’t look as good as DCP or a good 35mm print, but it’s reasonably close. DVD, on the other hand, looks dreadful on a really big screen.

Could you build a real repertoire schedule around Blu-ray discs? Only if you limited yourself to the obvious popular classics. I surveyed the February schedules for the Castro, Pacific Film Archive, and Stanford. Out of 75 films on those schedules made before 2000, only 14 are available on Blu-ray. I’m guessing that far fewer are available on DCP.

Collette wrote that Warner Brothers “currently have a very small DCP library of rep titles, though they’ve told us that [it] will grow in the future.” For now, “We try and book around what we can get in 35mm or DCP in almost all cases.”

Not all the classics are controlled by major studios like Warners. PFA Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby told me via email that “I am heartened that a number of specialized distributors are continuing to strike new prints of classic films.” She specifically mentioned Janus Films, Rialto Pictures, and Park Circus.

And there are museums and archives all around the world that hold onto prints, and carefully loan them to each other and to festivals and venues where they know they will be properly treated.

So how long will we have 35mm prints of classic films? That depends on how long the labs are running, and the care and skill of the projectionists who handle them. Film prints will become like the paintings and sculptures that tour museums around the world–precious artifacts to be treasured and expertly displayed.

CinemaSF’s Klingelhofer predicts that “35mm reel-to-reel exhibition [also known as changeover projection] will become a rare treat as print inventories diminish and distributors and archives become increasingly unwilling to ship them out. Platter 35mm exhibition [which replaced changeover in the 1970’s as the standard for most theaters] is not allowed for many libraries already.”

Now that’s a delicious irony. Good, old-fashioned changeover projection will outlive platters. Let’s hope it outlives them for a very long time. Or at least long enough to get everything digitized.

I’ve decided to write one more piece in this series, on digital archiving.

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