Bellingham’s Pickford Film Center is downright neighborly. As the only 365-day independent cinema between Seattle and Vancouver B.C., the Pickford’s mission “is to provide a forum and resource for independent cinema, strengthening community through education, dialogue and the celebration of film.”
Apart from screening movies outside the major studio rotation, Pickford celebrates regional filmmaking with the NW Projections Film Festival, a filmmaking competition for high schoolers, a month long international documentary series, a children’s film festival that provides free screenings for at-risk youth, and outdoor summer movies. They’re also struggling to update their equipment.
Michael Falter is the theater's director of programming, which means it's his job to borrow films from movie studios for the Pickford to screen. But the process isn’t so easy anymore. In a move to cut costs, Hollywood's major studios are banding together to shift film distribution to digital formats, rather than the traditional reel of film. The Pickford can’t afford the upgrade.
The overhaul doesn’t come cheap. For new equipment, the Pickford can expect to fork over $225,000 — $70,000-$115,000 per screen. Like many independent theaters, they’re looking to the community for support. Donations have helped raise $75,261, about 33 percent of what they need for a full digital renovation.
In November 2010, Twentieth Century Fox sent a letter to theater exhibitors across the U.S. and Canada urging them to update their projection equipment to digital formats, as the date would one day approach when major movie studios would cease distribution of traditional, 35 millimeter celluloid films.
Some 25,000 theaters complied, putting themselves in the good graces of one of Hollywood’s largest film distributors. But thousands hadn’t updated. They got another reminder: “The time is now for digital conversion for those theaters that wish to continue to license Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Searchlight motion picture product for theatrical exhibition into the future,” the letter noted.
Fox wants to go totally digital, and they’re not alone. Other key Hollywood studios want to give 35mm the axe too. Some of the biggest players in the business, such as Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Paramount Pictures and The Walt Disney Company have united in an effort called Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI). Their aim: To establish certain, universal specifications for digital cinema that is cost effective, reliable and state of the art.
While going digital seems like a windfall to studio heads, the overall effects could be disastrous for smaller theaters. By cutting 35mm distribution, some industry insiders have estimated that as many as 10,000 screens across the U.S. and Canada could go dark for good. John Fithian, president of The National Association of Theaters Owners, has repeatedly remarked on those mostly independent theaters still operating solely on 35mm technology: “Convert or die.”
While there is no exact date as to when studios will stop 35mm distribution completely, sometime in early 2013 is considered to be the end date. Time is running out, and a digital overhaul has reels of difficulties to overcome.
The industry is trying to shift to something called a Digital Cinema Package (DCP). Instead of shipping bulky, expensive film canisters to theaters, studios will streamline the process and reduce the distribution of movies to a digital hard drive, roughly the size of a paperback novel, as a way to save on dollars.
It costs a Hollywood studio anywhere from $1,200 to $1,500 to strike, or produce, a single 35mm film print. With about 4,000 copies of each film distributed nationwide, the costs add up fast. Movie studio’s spend nearly $850 million a year making film prints. Conversely, a DCP runs a mere $80 and is heavily encrypted and encoded to curb piracy.
To incentivize the process, studios have agreed to subsidize the conversion. Because of the cost savings, studios will pay exhibitors a “virtual-print fee” over the next seven to ten years for movies shown digitally to pay off the investment undertaken by theater exhibitors.
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