Should Movie Theaters Have Switched to Digital?

Digital projection is meaning cleaner and more stable pictures on the big screen.

Have you noticed anything different in the past few years of visiting your local multiplex? No more Harry Potter films every year mainly, but more fundamentally than that – does the screen look cleaner and more stable than usual? None of the scratches and jitter that you always used to see?

You’re witnessing the results of cinema’s digital switchover, just another step our lives have taken from the analogue into the digital world. It’s maybe something many haven’t thought about too much, as they sit back, munch popcorn and drink gallons of Fanta while watching dozens of blockbusters.

But considering how many people are affected by it and its impact on how cinemas are run, maybe we should be asking: what’s wrong with this picture?

Since the film-digital debate is kind of technical, just a bit of background so we’re clear. For over a century, physical 35mm film prints were the undisputed method for projecting films. Digital projectors have existed since the late 1990s, but the cost to cinemas of replacing their film projectors was a major deterrent. According to the British Film Institute (BFI), less than 10 percent of the UK’s screens were digital as recently as 2008, despite the now-defunct UK Film Council’s efforts to subsidise several hundred digital installations.

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Enter Avatar, which gave digital projection’s possibilities a rocket boost in interest. James Cameron’s groundbreaking visual experience wasn’t the first film to be presented in new digital 3D, but the all-time highest grossing film left cinemas racing to install projectors to keep up with audience demand. Though very few 3D films since (native or post-converted) have approached Avatar’s impact, the tide was turned.

Installing digital projectors was still expensive but beyond that, studios and cinemas could benefit from the ease and low cost of cartridge-sized Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs), over film prints which cost more to make, are bulkier to transport and require more attention to project without problems.

That meant by 2012, in just four years, the UK’s film/digital ratio had completely reversed, the pixels showing on 91.4 percent of screens. Now it seems like only the BFI Southbank in London is guaranteed to have regular film screenings, and that’s basically the capital of British cinema (although lots of independents still support film too, we should note).

Beyond the screen however, digital’s rise has had a devastating impact on the skilled projectionists who handled and maintained film projection. Since digital projectors require minimal input and attention in order to play scheduled programmes, it’s been another way for cinemas to cut running costs through fewer staff.

It’s very easy to sympathise with those who have worked with film for years suddenly taken down by digital, their skills now apparently useless. For many of them, projecting prints is (or was) a delicate craft, every screening providing its own unique performance.

This is hence ruined by unskilled, generic automated projection, which film-supporters like critic Mark Kermode have noted can falter with no immediate solutions (“wouldn’t have happened with 35”).

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This cinema efficiency drive corresponds with increasing complaints about lack of ushers and the resulting lack of audience etiquette (which we’ve covered before). This writer’s own experiences include cases of poorly calibrated 3D and lack of screen adjustment to account for aspect ratios, leaving a film surrounded by black bars.

Talk to a lot of these projectionists, and they’ll also express a deep preference for film’s look over digital presentations. The analogue picture is organic, vibrant and richly coloured whereas digital is flat and lifeless.

It’s a debate which is very similar to the one still raging in the music world, where collectors of vinyl records insist that the sound is warmer and more complete than newer, cold-sounding CDs or downloads. Film lovers have their own variation of this complaint, most commonly arguing that DCPs’ blacks just aren’t as rich as on film prints, especially when the movie was originally shot on film negative.

To be fair, debating aesthetic quality crosses over into another part of the issue, the choices made during film production (i.e. shooting on film or digital). But then key filmmakers have put their own stake in how films should be projected, several of them questioned (by Keanu Reeves, no less) in the documentary Side By Side.

Quentin Tarantino has been the most outspoken, frequently labelling digital projection as “television in public” and declaring its dominance over film as “the death of cinema as I know it.”

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Does he have a point? While HDTVs will never regularly be as big as a typical cinema screen, it can definitely be argued that without film projection, what makes cinemagoing a unique experience from home-viewing is lost. “Television” also speaks to a different viewing mentality which might be developing, and it’s not a very welcome one.

To better explain, how many times in a cinema recently have you seen an indifferent audience member searching through messages or playing Candy Crush on their phone next to you?

They remain a minority, but it could be for them that television back home is simply automated comfort food, background noise to keep them company as they quietly jab at their other screen. With fewer ushers or unique analogue screens, maybe cinemas are now similarly automated and lifeless, breeding such careless behavior. Certainly, there are never ushers on hand to tell them to put their phones away.

The filmmakers and projectionists’ crucial problem, also suffered by vinyl fans, is that their passion for the medium will always be outweighed by the consumption of the masses, looking simply for entertainment and likely paying no thought to how it actually works.

They’re not out to kill cinema; so long as they’re shown the latest releases with acceptable quality and reliability the vast majority of the time, that’s enough for them. The digital switchover’s a few years old now, and they simply don’t care about such subtle differences or defects, even if film lovers are right. Instead, they much more likely appreciate the lack of wear and tear DCPs experience compared to film prints run through projectors dozens of times.

Probably the best example of this was anecdotal reports that James Cameron’s earlier world-conqueror, Titanic, played so often and for so long that prints fell apart in the projectors. But no matter at what point you see a DCP during its run, it retains the same pristine quality as when it was first played.

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Plus the fact is there are more viewing possibilities now than when there was just film. No matter how much we might grumble about how expensive and unnecessary 3D often is, 2D screenings haven’t disappeared and some people genuinely enjoy watching films in 3D. Enabling incredibly sophisticated sound systems like Dolby Atmos, with 128 discrete audio tracks at once, can’t hurt either.

True, The Hobbit’s higher frame rates haven’t caught on yet, and we’ll wait and see how 4DX is received, but you can’t blame cinemas or studios for trying to attract casual viewers with something a little different, not when there are so many other screens fighting for our attention.

That said, if there’s one area in which the film/digital comparison is at least half-obvious, it’s IMAX. Slashfilm already produced a guide on this, but suffice it to say that the dual-2K projector digital version of IMAX supports much smaller screen sizes than the film version, as shown by the image below:

The fact that IMAX refuses to distinguish between these two methods in their marketing has led to Digital IMAX screens being derided as ‘Lie-MAX’, and it’s not unfounded when comparing their size to the ones which project 15-perf 70mm film, still considered the biggest and best quality image possible.

It’s IMAX 70mm which Christopher Nolan has recently latched onto so much. Parts of The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar have all been shot using IMAX cameras. In fact, the director has actively favored film projection when releasing his films, going so far as to tease The Dark Knight Rises’ prologue solely in IMAX film theatres a year early.

When Interstellar was released in cinemas that could project film a few days before those which had fully converted to digital, it caused consternation amongst theatre owners. One small Texas cinema chain CEO said simply: “It makes no sense to step back in time.” And in a way their dismay is understandable, given that the studios’ threat to stop supplying film prints was the big reason why they made the expensive digital switchover.

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Nolan’s made his own thoughts on the subject clear several times, but he reiterated them at CinemaCon back in March last year: “Film is the best way to capture an image and project that image. It just is, hands down. That’s based on my assessment of what I’m seeing as a filmmaker….As far as innovation and experimentation, I’m in favour of any technological innovation but it will always have to exceed what came before. None of the new technologies have done that.”

My own feelings on this topic relate to Paul Thomas Anderson, another highly respected filmmaker still pushing for shooting and projecting on film. In January the splendid Phoenix cinema in Leicester screened 35mm prints of his previous films to mark the release of Inherent Vice, and I managed to catch Magnolia and The Master.

Both films are frankly brilliant, but the latter is especially interesting for being mostly shot on rarely-used 65mm. Just a few large 70mm prints were produced without any digital influence, alongside 35mm prints and DCPs.

Alas, The Master in 70mm wasn’t an opportunity for me, but in 35mm? The stunning beauty and blunt intimacy of the photography had such clarity, such rich colours, that at points I was totally agreeing with the film lovers.

But at other points I couldn’t help but notice the assorted scratches all over the frame during certain reels. Presumably this 35mm print, also in limited numbers, ran at many cinemas and/or festivals before reaching the Phoenix, but the amount of visible wear for a film not even three years old at that point was striking.

Comparing this experience with watching my Blu-ray copy of The Master, I still appreciate the 35mm print as something unique, and it’s personally gratifying to have fulfilled Anderson’s wish for his films to be seen as prints. But oh the film’s HD transfer is gorgeous, replicating the 65mm negative’s insane detail with almost spotless excellence. Plus I know it will always look this good no matter how many times I watch it (just look after your discs!).

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So I’m a bit torn. It’s nice to occasionally partake in a tradition which has served cinema very well for over a century, but I’m not sure the benefits are enough to say it’s clearly superior, especially for more casual film fans.

Yet it is clear that many well-informed and passionate people prefer film’s look and method, so it’s up to the BFI and independent cinemas to keep film screenings going if people really want them. Tarantino for his part is planning the widest 70mm release in over 20 years for his latest film The Hateful Eight, out this Christmas.

The rise of digital is something that every medium’s had to come to terms with, and hopefully film lovers can continue to share their passion as a niche, while everyone else is perfectly happy with the latest digital solutions.

Digital is clearly staying put, especially when so many of the films we watch are being shot, edited and finished digitally; it will also only keep improving. Although IMAX’s digital conversion may be currently selling an inferior product, the company has just started delivering new dual-4K laser projectors to the market with much greater image contrast (which should help alleviate those black-level concerns) and precise detail. Who knows, maybe one day digital IMAX will outsize the 70mm prints Nolan so loves.

If this very complex and subjective debate has no neat answer (and indeed provokes a surprising amount of online insults), then should geeks, cinephiles and filmmakers alike be thankful we still have cinemas at all? This might seem an extreme point, but look at how the windows between films’ theatrical and home video releases keep narrowing.

Are cinemas themselves on the verge of becoming a niche? Not just yet: the BFI reported last month that cinema attendances actually increased 10 percent in the first six months of this year compared to last year, and that trend should continue with Spectre and Star Wars: The Force Awakens coming up in the winter. We can bemoan perceived slips in standards, but the public at least still spends time and money to sit down in a special theatre to watch a film. Or most of them, anyway.

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Though I wonder: will cinema chains and studios eventually change their business altogether? Will our phones be the first place to watch the latest tentpole blockbusters? Forget TV in public, I want to hear Tarantino’s thoughts on that particular prospect.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in supporting actual film screenings across the UK, then We Can Still Show Film, from Peter Knight (aka the Mad Cornish Projectionist), has a list of all the film-capable cinemas across the UK.