Goodbye to celluloid; Goodbye to indie theaters

I love my HDTV. I love watching Blu-rays and high-def programming on it; the picture and audio is crisp, the colors are vivid, the blacks really black. What I do not love is going to a movie theater for  essentially the same experience. That’s what you get when you go to a lot of cineplexes, since AMCs and other large chains have opted for digital projection over 35mm film in the past few years.

Is that what audiences want? I myself like scratch marks on film prints. I get a little giddy in anticipation whenever I see the “cigarette burns” — the yellow ovals in the top right corner of the picture that signal a reel is about to be changed — flash across the screen. The popping sound that accompanies the switching reels, the crunching sound of my fellow audience members chewing overpriced popcorn — these idiosyncrasies remind me that I’m having a communal experience that home theaters will never be able to replicate. I don’t want to lose that feeling.

Soon, theaters will be forced to make a choice: convert to digital or go out of business. The National Association of Theater Owners recently announced that they have struck an agreement with major Hollywood production studios to convert to digital projection by the end of 2013. At that point theaters will only be able to receive hard drives that contain films, rather than the 75-pound film reels that have provided the function for a hundred years. This conversion process is hugely expensive; retrofitting several screens within a single cinema can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

Digital projection in theaters has been little more than a nuisance to me and my pretentious viewing expectations in the past. Everything looks crisp on a 40 inch screen, but potentially  flat, dark, and lifeless when blown up to 40 feet. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe wrote an illuminating exposé last summer describing how the AMC Loews Boston Common 19 and Regal Fenway Stadium 13 often operate their digital projectors incorrectly, misusing projector lenses so that sometimes the picture is 85 percent darker than intended. In the past, I’ve steered clear of the AMC Boston Common and ventured to the palaces draped in celluloid. In the near future, though, my options will be limited, and this one-time nuisance will have more serious consequences. 

My fellow employees at the Kendall Square Cinema (part of Landmark Theatres, the largest independent film-oriented theater chain in the country) recently learned our theater would be going all-digital by year’s end. Landmark, worth millions, can afford and eventually reap the financial benefits of the conversion process. Almost all major theater chains have agreed to convert good ol’ 35mm film projectors to digital projection systems. They can save on payroll, as they will need to hire fewer projectionists. The decision makes sense from a business standpoint. Distribution companies will no longer have to shell out the $1,100-$2,100 it costs to create and distribute a film print, according to the Los Angeles Times. For a blockbuster like The Hunger Games, which will roll out tomorrow in close to 10,000 screens, millions of dollars would be saved. 

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But what will happen to small, independently owned theaters like the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline or FEI Theatres’ pair of houses in Somerville and Arlington? What about the nonprofit and largely volunteer-run Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, which proudly debuts eccentric fare to the Boston area? Cinema lovers might not only lose the personality of these indies, but a lot of diverse programming. Good luck trying to convince the execs at AMC or Regal that they should be picking up the next low-key Italian flick or socially conscious documentary.