After reporting last week about plans to soon equip one-third of American cinemas with digital projectors, I received a few comments telling of disappointing encounters with the new format. It got me wanting to do some more research on the technology and the experience, and hopefully soon take in a digital showing somewhere. I haven't yet become an expert on the subject, but I did come across an interesting set of articles in Sunday's Ventura County Star, both written by Allison Bruce, which give the pros and the cons of both digital and film projectors.

Aside from the obvious factors that make digital attractive -- clearer picture, cheaper distribution -- Bruce includes an amusing comment from director Barry Sonnenfeld in which he says studios could easily change a movie that has been badly received by critics or audiences, after it has opened in theaters. He cites King Kong as a good example of a movie that would have benefited had Universal been able to cut out 40 minutes of the film after hearing that viewers complained of it being too long. I highly doubt that any studios would actually take advantage of this, though. After all, isn't that why they have test screenings?

One thing I think that hurts digital, evident from Bruce's article supporting digital, is that most of the format's pros are beneficial to studios and theaters more than to audiences. The cheaper distribution, the ease of projector use, the issues with piracy and the scheduling ideas for exhibitors are all meant to save the businesses money. But will it trickle down the savings to the consumer? No way. In fact, I see digital being used as an excuse to raise prices for the ticket buyers. Consider that the big theater chains are about to borrow a collective billion dollars. It is obvious that we, the audience, will be depended upon to pay those loans back.

I find it especially helpful that Bruce countered her own pro digital piece with her pro film article. In this she lets it be known that even digital projectors have mechanical difficulties, which are comparative to the problems people have with film projectors. While film may be scratched or dirty or may break in the middle of a show, digital may have computer glitches, resulting in completely blank screens. According to the article, digital fails 0.1 percent of the time, while film fails less than that.

Anyway, as I can tell you from experience, the major errors with film are caused by ineffective projectionists, and once again this is because of cost-cutting on the theater's end. Since the mid-90s most cinemas have replaced professional projection experts, who they deemed too expensive, with their own managers. The problem is, most of these managers are inefficiently trained and are expected to often multitask between the projection booth and the main floor. Chances are if there's a problem with your film -- scratching, breaking, bad focus, and starting time issues -- it is because the man in charge of the projector is busy selling popcorn. I guarantee this happened all weekend at your local multiplex showing the surprisingly popular Pirates of the Caribbean.

Since audiences are not likely to save and many moviegoers don't notice the difference between watching film and watching digital, theaters are going to have to make a big case for the new format if it is really going to save cinemas as much as they're hoping. Obviously they are already making the transition and nothing will stop their plans, so we regular moviegoers all need to get used to digital and hope the technology improves, but for those people who are already staying home and contributing to the box office decline, something far more substantial than an improvement in picture quality will have to draw them back.
CATEGORIES Movies, Cinematical