Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Goodbye 35mm film, Hello digital movie

Over the years, it has been a slow disappearance of 35mm film from commercial theaters in my city but now the transformation is complete. Not a single multiplex in the city shows 35mm anymore and every film is a digital presentation, shown either using a DVD/Blu-Ray disc or a file downloaded via satellite. This seems to have been a change that has happened without any fuss or even much discussion. Although there are a good number of people who love the change to digital and praise the "pristine" quality of digital movies. As far are these cinema goers are concerned, they do not have to put up with scratches or tiny circles in their film anymore. Distributors and studios love digital as well because they can save the cost of producing 35mm prints. In the past, studios had to spend millions of dollars in order to produce thousands of 35mm prints for mass delivery but now studios can get their product out to hundreds of locations cheaply. Theater owners also love digital because the newest film can be beamed via satellite immediately and they can screen multiple shows of a film on the same day. For example, if it were not for digital, then multiplexes would not be able to book 19 to 27 shows of the newest Hollywood film in a single day. Also, with digital, theaters require less people to look after movie projectors. Some theaters have all the shows programmed to be played via a computer and a movie automatically starts on time, even if no one is in the theater.

Even though theaters earn more profit from multiple showings of a film than previously, the ticket price has not changed from the 35mm days. The ticket price for seeing a digital copy of a new Hollywood film in a Calgary multiplex is still $12.75 (Canadian dollars), the same as it was when multiplexes still showed 35mm. However, one can argue that the cost is justified because theater owners have had to spend a lot of money to upgrade to digital projectors, which start from atleast $60,000 per projector to upwards of $150,000. So theaters have to recoup their costs, which is why they are happy with keeping the ticket price the same as previously. Interestingly, theaters who are upgrading to even more “state of the art” digital projectors are charging $3-$5 more per ticket, raising the ticket price to $15.75-$17.75. As it stands, 3D theaters charge a $3 markup for an average price of $15.75.

So is something lost in this transition to digital? If the answer was yes, then one would have seen more debate and even passionate discussions. As it stands, I believe this is one change welcomed by the masses. Although I am not finding much to cheer about. My reason does not have to do entirely with nostalgia even though this past weekend I found myself thinking fondly about the good old days after enjoying a great 35mm print of Attenberg. The film started off with some scratches before the images cleared up and from then on, it was a beautiful film presentation. I am not a purist either who believes 35mm is the only format that should be shown in a cinema. In fact, for the longest time I have argued that seeing a particular film was more important than the format the film was in, which means I was fine with 35mm, VHS tape, DVD or even a stream of bits & bytes. The biggest reason for my dissatisfaction has to with the cost of a digital movie ticket being the same or higher than for a 35mm film. My view is shaped by experiences acquiring 35mm prints for a theatrical showing. Getting all the reels of a 35mm film involved a few hundred dollars of shipping costs plus some hassles involved with getting film reels across customs/borders in time for a film showing. On the other hand, the costs for shipping or downloading a digital file is minuscule. Of course, distributors and studios still probably charge theaters the same fee or pricing structure from the 35mm days because of the newness of their product. The digital delivery of the movie is just a tiny technicality and something that saves studios cost while still ensuring a steady flow of profits. If the studios/distributors are not going to change their rates, then theaters can claim they have no choice. This argument ignores the fact that theaters are showing more shows per day now as compared to a few years ago.

The least theaters can do is openly advertise that audience are going to be watching a DVD/Blu-Ray/downloaded file of a new Hollywood film. Cineplex does advertise the digital presentation of its classic film series and yearly digital film festival where older films are shown for $5. However, things are different with new Hollywood films where no such statements about the digital nature of the film is made. Will that knowledge of seeing a DVD/Blu-Ray of a new film deter some people? Probably not. The novelty of seeing new movies in a theater has to do with the fact that people want be among the first to see a new anticipated blockbuster movie. Also, there is something to be said about the social atmosphere of attending a theater and enjoying the latest gimmick the multiplex has to offer. And multiplexes are indeed doing their best to get crowds to come back in droves by emphasizing the entertainment values of a theatrical experience, first by adding 3D and now by going further with D-Box motion systems. A moving chair in a theater certainly brings to mind the tricks used by John Goodman’s character in Matinee but in a few years more gimmicks will be added. In the last few years, many multiplexes across Canada have expanded beyond films by regularly showing live operas and sporting events on a regular basis to fill their seats and earn revenue. Unfortunately, multiplexes are still not expanding their offerings to include foreign and independent films.

The burden of handling the large array of global cinema falls to a few independent and art house theaters. And it is also these independent theaters who will stick with 35mm because they cannot afford to spend a huge chunk of their revenue to go 100% digital. Considering that these theaters struggle to attract crowds, a move to digital would not make much financial sense. The three art house theaters in Calgary (The Plaza, The Globe and the Uptown) still have the ability to show 35mm and I believe that case will apply for other such venues across North America.

35mm will not disappear completely but it will certainly become harder to find. Just like gramophones and vinyl records can still be found, 35mm theaters will be continue to exist, albeit in limited numbers. It may just happen that if in the future people want to see 35mm films then they would have to pay more for a ticket than for a digital movie because the infrastructure to produce 35mm prints might not be as affordable or accessible.


Sam Juliano said...

Manhattan's Film Forum continues to offer up 35 mm prints of world classics, and will surely so so well into the future for reasons you well elaborate on here. The cost of conversion and the affront to purists may well be prohibitive, but you may also be right that ticket costs will rise. I am rather startled that all the multiplexes in your area have gone digital, though I can't say that the ones in my area are all 35 mm either. I must complete some investigation to be sure.

Fascinating feature here Sachin!

Sachin said...

I am glad to hear that Film Forum continues to show 35mm and I believe that it will continue to do for a very long time.

I had recently read that some theater in the US (can't remember where) had ripped out digital and went back to 35mm. I am not aware of the reasons but that news stood out as usually I have only read the opposite, that is the race to go digital. I even read that most multiplexes had to go digital by end of 2012 or early 2013 because most of the big Hollywood films won't be on 35mm anymore.

I had not given this much thought until recently but it is weighing on me quite a bit now. I plan to soak up as much 35mm as possible this year.

Thanks a lot for your comment and support Sam.