The Digital Divide

'There is no denying that [film] prints will eventually be history,' says Robert Mastronardi, a manager with Kodak's Entertainment Imaging Division. 'The question is, five years or 10 years?'
January 1, 2002

‘There is no denying that [film] prints will eventually be history,’ says Robert Mastronardi, a manager with Kodak’s Entertainment Imaging Division. ‘The question is, five years or 10 years?’

Mastronardi’s assertion seems bold considering celluloid has dominated the doc industry for almost 100 years, but even filmmakers as experienced as Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker are adopting the digital medium. As the number of content providers embracing the medium increases, so too does the demand for digital projection.

‘I was in New York for two premieres at the Directors Guild Theater,’ says distributor Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit in Montreal, Canada. ‘The eight o’clock show looked alright – it looked like a blown-up 35mm. The 10 o’clock film was digitally projected and it looked wonderful – crisp, colorful, great. For me, that was the moment. Seeing those two films together in the same evening, I thought, ‘this is the end of 35mm.’ That, combined with the fact that all the major documentary film festivals are installing digital projection.’

Indeed, film festivals have been at the vanguard of digital projection installation. In 1999, the Sundance Film Festival outfitted four theaters with digital projectors.

For this month’s festival, at least 12 Sundance theaters are digitally equipped. Mike Levi, president of North American operations for Digital Projection Inc., a former imax affiliate that supplies Sundance and other festivals (including the Toronto International Film Festival) with digital projectors, says the festival market is growing. He also reveals that five years ago, when the company first launched its product, festivals weren’t charged for digital services and equipment. Today, festivals continue to request their business, although it now comes at a price.

However, filmmakers will reap the financial benefits of digital projection only after it moves beyond the festival circuit. The cost of creating film prints is expensive and in the world of feature docs, producers live close to the profit margin (if not below it). Finding the funds to transfer to film often proves impossible. Distributors also stand to benefit from the demise of film. Striking a Beta SP tape costs about US$200 (a 16mm first print starts around $7,000), which means even small distribs can afford multiple copies of a film, allowing different theaters to run a release concurrently. The price of shipping is also dramatically reduced once heavy cans of film are taken out of the equation.

‘It’s obvious that festivals are really interested in getting [digital] projection systems,’ says Rofekamp. ‘The next step is the art houses. The commercial cinema circuit won’t follow very quickly, because the infrastructures are so heavy and well established. But, the art house circuit will, because a lot of the material they want to play is not available on film. If art house theaters are smart, over the next two years they will install digital projectors.’

In late November, 2001, Film Forum, a prominent non-profit film theater in New York, purchased its first digital projection system. ‘We’ve been talking about this for a while, but were waiting for a film that we really wanted for which [a filmmaker] didn’t have any intention of striking a print,’ explains Dominick Balletta, general manager of Film Forum. ‘The occasion came up and we decided we had to add this capacity. At Film Forum, we can do just about any format – 16mm, 35mm, synchronous 3-D. It just seemed natural that if we have all those formats in place that we should begin to venture into video. [Much Ado About Something, by Michael Rubbo] was the film that kicked it over the edge. You always need something to say, ‘Okay, now we’ll do it.’ That film was it.’

The total cost of the system was $30,000, which includes the projector ($12,000), a Beta SP playback system ($12,000) and lenses for three theaters ($6,000). Despite the theater’s investment and the immediate savings available to filmmakers, Balletta says Film Forum will continue to give priority to celluloid. ‘In today’s environment, if a film is successful, the filmmaker has a better chance of wider film house distribution being on film and striking prints than they do with digital. That’s a concern. It’s very nice if a film comes here and plays for two weeks on digital projection and everybody loves it. But, if there’s no print, it can’t go anywhere,’ he explains. ‘The cost is going to be prohibitive for a lot of the non-profit houses, and the smaller art chains are going to look at that cost and say, ‘I don’t think so’.’ The problem, says Balletta, is that all the savings afforded by digital projection lie on the side of the content providers and not with the exhibitors.

Chuck Collins, national vertical market development manager for Digital Projection Inc. confirms that cost is the biggest barrier to digital penetration of the independent theater circuit. He also reveals that Film Forum’s investment is minimal, as digital projection kits appropriate for docs range between $30,000 and $60,000 per screen (Hollywood produced material is played on the dlp Cinema platform, which costs between $150,000 and $180,000 per screen). Although Levi predicts the price of today’s digital projection systems could drop by as much as half in the next two years, he warns that new and improved systems will come onto the market. ‘A standard has to be defined and agreed upon,’ says Levi. ‘Art houses and those who distribute independent product have a broader scope of options than commercial exhibition does.’ Adds Collins, ‘It’s up to the folks putting those networks together to define what the standards should be.’

Once the standard is defined, theaters still need an incentive to invest. Given the current business model, Balletta, Levi and Collins all agree it must come from the content providers. ‘I think [digital projection] will catch on when there’s enough product that consciously makes the decision not to go to film,’ says Balletta. ‘When the filmmakers say: ‘I conceived my film this way, I shot my film this way, my film won’t work in any other format,’ that’s when the turning point comes.’ Digital Projection Inc. takes it one step further. Says Levi, ‘On all ends of the spectrum, most of the business models proposed show the content providers providing the financial instrument to fund the purchase. I’m pretty convinced that’s the way it’s going to happen.’ At Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles, u.s. (a for-profit indie chain that provides screens for ifp West and Academy Award qualification), this is already happening. ‘There is no reason for us to invest in digital projection at this point in time,’ says owner Bob Laemmle. On the occasion it’s needed, Laemmle refers filmmakers to Rick Pollard, a projectionist at Laemmle who rents digital projection systems for about $350 a day.

For theaters just starting up, however, digital projection systems are attractive. Says Collins, ‘For a while, we received business plans monthly from companies wanting to reclaim a closed theater or shopping center. That’s where it’s heading for independent film. Independents have always been early adopters and I think that’s where it’s going to happen.’ He continues, ‘The entrepreneurs trying to provide that important connection between the creators of digital content and the screen, their ability to get funding and provide that funding is what determines whether it’s one year, two years, or 10 years away. There are a couple of groups we’re working with that have very promising plans with good resources behind them, they’re showing a lot of vision, and huge commitment. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the next year, we start to see small digital networks of art house cinemas being wired up.’

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