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Is Celluloid’s Demise Finally Arriving?

Topics: Popular Media | Add A CommentBy admin | February 1, 2011

If you love seeing films at the theater, you better hurry. Within a couple years what you’re watching will almost certainly be coming from a hard drive.

When was the last time you went to a theater and saw a film? I guess that depends on what you call a “film”, because there’s a reasonably good chance that what you saw was data stored on a hard drive on a media server and projected with a digital projector. The other day I ran across this rather charming clip (also below) that features a film projectionist talking about his job, and how that job is slowly becoming a relic. If you really love film, you may have the same fondness that I do for classic full-size theaters, and have a certain irrational attachment to all the things that go with them, including the distant clacking sound of an actual film projector. As much as I generally prefer this archaic process to work, one of my favorite theater experiences ever was when – in the middle of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder – the projector jammed and I watched the frame melt on the massive screen at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, MI. These days, this would just be an annoying interruption of the high-priced experience you pay for at the multiplex, but at the time – surrounded by cinema addicts – it was a chance to talk about film while the projectionist scrambled to get the film rolling again. So this reminiscing got me curious. They’ve been talking about digitizing theaters for quite a while now, but how many theaters are actually digital? This turned out to be some tough information to track down; the industry is changing so rapidly that even the venerable HowStuffWorks.com isn’t up to speed. Although their features on film projection and screens are pretty interesting, they’re woefully out of date, as is their feature on digital projection. The US film and theater industries in general have been struggling for some time to decide who was going to foot the bill for the switch to digital, and which technology was going to be the standard, a struggle that’s not so surprising if you look at this lengthy list of theater chains. In any case, this has all been changing rather rapidly, probably due in part to how unprepared theater chains were for the onslaught of 3D, which requires digital projectors.  Last year three major players – AMC Entertainment, Cinemark Holdings and Regal Entertainment Group struck a deal to convert about 14,000 screens, and smaller chains like Showcase got on board more recently. In broad strokes, the deals mean that almost all US theaters should have digital by the end of 2012. We’ll be doing a followup piece; the mysteries of the projection booth are fascinating, and there’s remarkably little up-to-date information about the broader impact of the suddenly-rapid switch to digital.