Movies were movies when you paid a dime to escape… and when you paid that dime, the movie was presented in a traditional way: a very bright light was shone through a film print of the movie provided by the distributor, and projected onto the “silver screen” (which actually was a little silver so as to reflect more light). Nowadays, we pay two orders of magnitude more (approx $10) to see a digital projection of the movie, which is delivered on a DRM-protected hard disk. Hollywood is expected to stop distributing traditional 35-millimeter film prints to all U.S. theaters later in 2013. Conversion costs to the new system are expensive, on the order of $70,000 or more per screen. These costs are impacting different types of theatres in many ways. Today’s lunchtime news chum looks at just a few of the impacts:
- Drive In Theatres. Whereas most chain multiplexes have converted to digital with support of the studios, one segment that hasn’t is the drive-in theatre. These theatres typically bring in less revenue per admission, and haven’t been supported by the film industry in their conversion. As a result, it looks like many drive-ins will close rather than convert. According to an industry trade group, 90% of drive-ins have not converted. At the peak of the drive-in, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins, accounting for 25% of the nation’s movie screens. Today, that’s down to 1.5%. Successful drive-ins survive on cost-conscious families who can see double features or first-run movies at half the price of the hardtops. Drive-ins also have unique needs. The booth typically sits more than a football field away from the screen, so the projector needs a much more powerful bulb to carry the image. Booths with a digital projector also need to be retrofitted with special glass, more vents, stronger air-conditioning and an Internet connection. Projectionists who used to put film onto reels will instead insert a jump-drive into a server the size of a refrigerator. Patronize your local drive-in while you can.
- Base Theatres. Another class of theatre that cannot afford the cost of conversion are those on military bases, such as the one at Ellsworth AFB. They also aren’t supported by the film industry, show films at a lower admission cost, and are opting to close instead of converting.
- Art Houses. Art houses are also being impacted by the conversion to digital. The biggest challenges for these houses are fundraising, attracting younger audiences, marketing their films, and converting theaters to digital projection. One operator noted that the audience will pay for new seats before they pay for digital projectors. Only the threat of closure will open the pockets. As noted above, this is complicated by the fact that some movie distributors are no longer shipping out bulky 35mm prints – opting instead for digital copies of their films. For example, last Halloween, 20th Century Fox indicated they would send only digital copies of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to theaters aiming to screen the midnight cult classic. However, I will note that digital projectors are not the reason behind the closure of the Laemmle 7 at the Fallbrook Mall in West Hills. The reason there is simple greed from the landlord, who wants more rent than the art house can support. Laemmle has indicated they are considering other opportunities in the area… especially those where they can own the facility instead of renting.
Music: Rock of Ages (2009 Original Broadway Cast): “Heaven/More Than Words/To Be With You”