The movie palace has been in trouble for decades now. In the 1990s, many of the last remaining ones were carved up into multiplexes. Today, there are between 500 and 750 still in operation, according to the Theatre Historical Society of America, but even those are threatened by the need to convert to digital equipment, which can cost between $70,000 and $80,000 per screen.
Movie theaters have been converting to digital for more than a decade, but the process was slowed by the expense -- and arguments between the Hollywood studios and theater owners over who would pay for it. The studios stand to save as much as $1 billion per year on the cost of striking and shipping film prints, once they can simply stream or e-mail a digital file to every booked screen with a single click, but that savings wasn't being passed on to the movie houses. WIth the coming of 3D and IMAX and their attendant surcharges, theater owners finally had a better incentive to buy the costly new projectors.
But whether or not theater owners keep up with the shift, the shift is rolling on, full speed ahead. About 60 percent of the nation's screens have changed over to digital, and by the end of next year, whether the remaining venues have upgraded or not, the studios will probably stop shipping 35MM prints altogether. Talking to the Associated Press, National Association of Theater Owners president and chief executive John Fithian has said, "Our guess is by the end of 2013 there won't be any film distributed anymore."
That evolution has had far-reaching effects on business that made a living from traditional celluloid film. Among those affected: Second-run and drive-in theaters (yes, there still are a few left), independent theaters, Birns & Sawyer (Hollywood's oldest movie-camera rental shop, which recently auctioned off all its non-digital cameras, and film processing labs and film stock manufacturers.
Most notoriously, last month saw the bankruptcy declaration of Kodak, an event whose repercussions are already going to touch Sunday's Oscar ceremony. Last week, a court granted Kodak the right to stop paying $3.6 million a year for the rights to name the Kodak Theatre, home of the Academy Awards ceremony for the last decade. The court decision is effective immediately, meaning that the Oscar show could take place in a venue that, without the Kodak name, would be just a nameless auditorium ensconced in a shopping mall.
A few hundred yards away from the
"This is another major threat to these theaters which were largely rescued and restored by grass-roots local efforts," Theatre Historical Society of America president Karen Colizzi Noonan told the AP. "It is so sad that after all that hard work and dedication these groups now face another huge challenge just to survive."
Many historic movie palaces are holding onto their 35MM projectors even as they add digital systems, since such theaters often specialize in showing classic movies, which often have yet to be digitzed, and second-run prints of recent movies. But even there, the second-run business is hurting because prints are already scarce, and by the time they arrive, weeks after the first-run screenings have ended, potential viewers have lost interest or are able to see the movies on DVD, streaming video, or on-demand cable.
The management at the Riviera, a historic theater north of Buffalo, N.Y., tells the AP it will keep showing celluloid movies as long as it can, but eventually, it'll move its 35MM projector into the lobby, as a museum artifact that will mystify younger viewers raised on digital projection.
What is being lost as these old-style palaces struggle to make the digital leap? One thing may be a way of seeing. Celluloid purists argue that traditional film images have a handmade, palpable physical quality to them that digital images lack. There's a sense, imparted through the graininess and imperfection inherent in film stock, of real people and objects being photographed, instead of just pixels being manipulated inside a computer. Even traditionalist directors who've embraced digital technology -- including "Hugo" director Martin Scorsese and "The Adventures of Tintin" director Steven Spielberg -- still maintain a nostalgic preference for celluloid.
"The cinema began with a passionate, physical relationship between celluloid and the artists and craftsmen and technicians who handled it, manipulated it, and came to know it the way a lover comes to know every inch of the body of the beloved," Scorsese wrote last year. "No matter where the cinema goes, we cannot afford to lose sight of its beginnings."
Said Spielberg, "I will remain loyal to this analog art form until the last lab closes."
Besides, with the new projectors, there's often a dimming of what was once bright and intense light, especially with 3D projectors when they show 2D films, making the movies as little as 15 percent as bright as they're supposed to be. There's little incentive for theater owners, even those with brand spanking new digital equipment, to improve the quality of the projection as long as audiences aren't complaining. Which they don't, either because they don't realize they're being shortchanged, or else have abandoned moviegoing altogether as a costly, uncomfortable experience that is inferior in nearly every way to home viewing.
And that's the other thing that's being lost: the sense of communal experience. Maybe we lost that a long time ago when we subdivided movie palaces into tiny shoeboxes, or stopped caring if we spilled Coke all over the floor for the next patrons to get their shoes stuck in, or started using our cellphones during the movie because we couldn't bear to be cut off from our own worlds even for the two hours it takes to lose yourself in a story larger than your own. The old palaces, though, were as big and opulent as the Hollywood dreams they housed, and they brought a measure of that Hollywood glamour to cities and towns all over America. Those palaces, including the ones still operating, were dedicated to the idea that there's something unique about the communal moviegoing experience. Digitization has made movies available anytime on two-inch screens in our pockets, but that has only succeeded in making movies smaller and less special. If the grand palaces survive into the digital era, maybe the grandeur of movies will survive as well.