NOGALES — “They’re computers after all,” is an excuse Susan Morales, the general manager of Oasis Cinema, has heard before – but never before when it came to showing a movie. “Well, that doesn’t help me or my customers,” she says.
Oasis Cinema is among the more than 80 percent of all movie theaters in the United States that have switched to new digital projection systems from projecting movies on 35-millimeter film. But even with the costs to convert to the new technology – an average of about $70,000 per screen – it seems that digital projection systems, while far simpler than film that whirrs through the projector from giant reels, still do have the occasional “issues” — as the tech people refer to what the rest of us call problems.
It used to be that theater employees could nimbly fix a balky projector, taking it apart to get it working again. But now when there’s a problem with the projector, the staff at Oasis need to get ahold of a network operating center in Florida for – you guessed it – tech support.
“It’s taken away some of our flexibility,” Morales said. “In many ways it’s easier, and we don’t have problems such as film tears or breaks or scratches. But when a projector has a problem and it’s something that’s computer-based and we’re not privy to how to fix the system, then we’re at the mercy of someone else.”
Under the systems used by the motion picture industry since its inception, movies were delivered to theaters in big metal cans or shipping boxes containing reels of film. A typical movie could weigh 100 pounds. Typically, under later-generation 35-millimeter projection systems, film on separate reels would be spliced together to be fed from a single huge reel into a projector, and then unspliced and repackaged to be shipped back to the distributor once the theater was done with it.
Now, theaters that have converted to the new systems receive a hard drive. Once the content is loaded, the hard drive can be sent back right away.
While the theater no longer needs a booth projectionist, the work has not become less labor-intensive, Morales said. There have been multiple times where staff has dealt with digital-projection problems. When there is a hardware malfunction and the theater has to wait for a part to come from elsewhere, that means a screen is down till it arrives.
With more than half of a typical movie ticket price going directly back to the studio, there is a large impact on any theater when a screen is dark because of a technical glitch.
“I think digital is beneficial for the moviegoer, because obviously you get a crisper, better show,” Morales said. “But I think it really hasn’t, in my particular case, made it so it’s been any easier to actually operate and get the films up.”
At The Loft Cinema, a nonprofit theater in Tucson, there have also been infrequent issues when a studio sends a “key,” which enables a digital movie to play. Sometimes, incorrect keys are sent and in the middle of the day the theater has been unable to play a movie, said Zachary Breneman, deputy director at the Loft. This has happened about a dozen times. In those situations, the theater must ask for an emergency key.
Breneman said the switch to digital, which was finished up six months ago, comes with both benefits and disadvantages.
“I think the benefits are quality control. Less skill is involved in projecting them, for sure. You can just press a couple of buttons. But it’s really hard to tell, when something goes wrong, how to fix it. I think it’s just a new world that will probably get easier, but for now is just a little inconvenient sometimes,” he said.
Patrick Corcoran, spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners, said theaters are having to learn how to use new equipment and integrate it into their work-flow. He added that the bulbs for digital projectors are more expensive and burn out more quickly than old projector lamps.
Still, theater owners generally said they are happy with digital. Gayle Berry, president of the Willcox Historic Theater Preservation Inc., which operates the Willcox movie theater in that Cochise County town, said the theater experienced a bit of a mess not long ago when, while the movie “Lincoln” was being shown, the movie film spun off the projector reel. Employees spent six hours untangling two miles of film that piled up in the booth. Customers got a free ticket to return.
“There is no comparison. I just can’t convey how different it is,” Berry said of the digital switch. “From a practical standpoint it wouldn’t have been possible to do what we do today. Also, from the experience of the audience, there’s really no comparison.”
When the Willcox theater opened in 1937, moviegoers relaxed in leather seats, to watch Joan Crawford and Robert Taylor star in “The Gorgeous Hussy.” Last June, though, the theater showed its last film print.
All over the country in recent years, movie theaters – most of them owned by large chains – have been converting their projection booths to digital – and it’s a statement of how important a movie house is in a small town like this that the Willcox managed to find the money to make the change. In a city with a population of about 3,800, the Willcox theater remains a fixture. There is not another movie theater within a 40-mile radius.
“It’s a real center for the community,” said Berry. But when the nonprofit took over the theater after it had been briefly closed in 2011, staff members were faced with the difficult decision of whether to give up film and switch to digital. At the time, theater’s 35-millimeter projection equipment used some parts from the 1940s, Berry said. At one point, one of the projectors had to be fixed with a paper clip.
However, with movie studios moving away from film — Paramount Studios announced last month that “Anchorman 2” would be its last wide release using film prints — it’s become harder for small theaters to find movies unless they make the expensive digital upgrades. The conversion costs can even exceed the $70,000 per-screen average when theaters need to make major changes to booth, wiring and other infrastructure, said Corcoran at the National Association of Theater Owners.
The costs is a big burden to many independently owned movie theaters in small markets, some of which have been closing around the country because they can’t afford the switch.
“We knew we had to either convert to digital or slowly strangle,” Berry said, “and so that’s what we did.”
Some theaters, like the Loft Cinema, a landmark on the national art-house movie circuit, are still holding a place for film. Currently, the theater staff is hoping to receive more 35-millimeter films to show during special events. Breneman said while some studios are still distributing first-run prints on film, most movies that will be projected on film in the future will come from archives. “We’re pretty committed to film. We think the history of the art form is film. I think it’s a different experience when you can tell that it’s running through a projector,” he said.