Monday, June 27, 2011
Why Do Theaters Project Film Reels Instead of Digitally?
I don’t really like going to the movie theater. They’re not usually playing anything I want to pay $11 for, and $4 for twenty-five cents worth of soda is an unbelievable rip-off. Many people say to me, “But you can’t get the same experience at home!” They’re right. I don’t get an amazing sound system, uncomfortable seating, 40 sick people coughing in the Winter, and idiots clapping at the credits in my living room.
But what I hate most about going to see movies in a public theater is film. It’s a horrible archaic form of media that we still hold on to for some reason. In an era where we could easily project a massive high-quality digital image onto a screen, our projectionists still have to lug around enormous film reels, feed them into the projector, and switch them over at exactly the right moment. By comparison, they could be placing one big disc into a drive and hitting “play.”
Laser discs have been around since 1978! Blu-ray discs can hold up to 128 GB of data and they’re only 4.5 inches in diameter! Why haven’t we made the switch yet?
Well, in actuality, lots of theaters have begun to convert their theaters to digital projectors, but the units often cost $100,000 each. The theater I go to on the rare occasion that my wife convinces me to has 18 screens—considered average in metro Atlanta. That would mean a $1.8 million investment to update each screen just for an average-sized theater! Multiply that by the number of AMC theaters in Atlanta, and you’ve got a fairly massive chunk of money the company would need to burn.
They don’t stand to recover their money, either. The savings from distribution of optical discs is attributed to the movie studio who would previously have to dump a significant portion of a film’s budget—on average $5 million or more—to have a bunch of reels printed up. Pouring and stamping out discs saves them a lot of money, but it doesn’t save the theaters any money at all, so there’s hardly any incentive to do so. They wouldn’t need to hire less projectionists, because usually there’s only one or two people running all the rooms anyway.
Theaters are slowly updating, though, under pressure from studios who are getting sick of printing film reels and sending them out, but they’re finding it hard to convince people to head into the theaters to see movies in “all-digital” format. After all, even the highest resolution digital image has a hard time competing with the “infinite resolution” of film.
Here’s some reasons why we should all embrace digital projection at our local movie theaters, even if it doesn’t result in a reduced ticket price.
The picture quality is ultimately better. Sure, film enthusiasts will claim that nothing beats the intense colors and clarity of film, but you’ve got to go on opening night to see it. Why? Because every time that film is run through the projector, it runs the risk of getting damaged. By the time a reel gets shipped off to the dollar theater, it’s a horrific mess of scratches, dust, and artifacts. The fact is, the longer you wait to see a movie projected from film, the worse the picture quality will be. However, a digital disc never loses its picture quality, no matter how many times it’s viewed.
The entire movie can run off of one disc. In order to accommodate thirty frames per second for a minimum of 5,400 seconds, a film reel needs to hold a lot of still images, but each image needs to be big enough that it looks flawless on a forty foot wide screen. If every frame was put on a single reel, the thing would need to be impractically large, so most movies use four or five reels which a projectionist has to switch between at the exact right moment. Ever seen the black dot that shows up in the upper right corner of a movie sometimes? The first dot is a warning; the second dot is the cue to flip the switch. Watch, and you’ll notice that the picture and sound quality are briefly interrupted when the switch is made. I find it distracting, but then I’m a nerd that pays attention to that stuff. The projectionist is doing a delicate dance of running around the room flipping the reels at the correct moment as if maintaining a bunch of plates spinning on poles. There’s such a huge amount of human error that’s possible here that it makes a lot more sense to feed a giant, half-terabyte disc into a digital projector and hit “play.”
A wider variety of movies can come to each theater. Theaters don’t usually take a chance on an artsy low-budget film because they’ve got to make money off of it somehow. If no one knows what it is because the studio didn’t have a huge ad campaign to raise public awareness, it’s less likely that someone will go see it. Therefore, if a theater gets their hands on a copy of something like Rachel Getting Married, they’ve got to put it in the smallest theater and try to run it exactly enough times to maximize profitability. They don’t usually share films even within their own chain because it’s too difficult, dangerous, and expensive to send the stack of reels around the city. But if they each had their own optical disc of the low-budget flick—at a production cost of only a few dollars each—the studio could make back their cost with just a few ticket sales. (This would also benefit low-budget films who would no longer need to set aside a significant chunk of money to produce the reels.)
If this all sounds good to you, then there’s good news! In 2007, Variety magazine predicted that half of theater screens would be using digital projection by 2013, and adoption statistics seem to be supporting these numbers. And with the number of movies being shot on digital cameras these days, these display methods make more sense than ever. I’ll be looking forward to the day when I can go see a movie three weeks into its release when it’s just me, my wife, and a few other people quietly enjoying a scratch-and-dust-free film. Too bad ticket prices will be $15 by then. Follow @torqtorq
Posted by torq at 11:53 AM