35mm era fades as theaters go digital – SFGate
Even if you’re a regular moviegoer, you might not have noticed it. But there’s an ongoing sea change in the way we watch movies. Increasingly, you are no longer watching films, even if you are watching motion pictures. That’s because theaters around the world, including in San Francisco, have been dismantling their 35mm projectors – the method of film exhibition for the past 115 years or so – and replacing them with digital projectors. It’s been rumored for years, of course, but it hit home this summer when the Marina and Presidio theaters in the Marina district became the first independently owned San Francisco movie theaters to go all digital. ‘The end of 35mm film is near,’ Marina and Presidio owner Frank Lee said. ‘It’ll be difficult to obtain film prints probably by the end of 2012 or early to mid-2013. Either you convert or cease operations.’ Deep-pocketed theater chains have gone all digital within the past year and a half, including the AMC’s Metreon and Van Ness multiplexes and Century’s San Francisco Centre screens (the Metreon’s Imax theater can still project film). But when the phenomenon sweeps the neighborhood theaters, which don’t have the resources to convert the way the chains do, you know there’s no going back. ‘Each digital system cost upwards of $70,000,’ said Lee, who had six such systems installed at the Marina and Presidio. ‘And actually, the savings is not going to be substantial because of maintenance and constant upgrades to the digital systems.’ Those of you who crave your moviegoing excitement at 24 frames per second can still watch flickering film at Lee’s 4 Star theater in the Richmond District, as well as the Balboa and Vogue theaters, owned by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation. They eventually will have to convert as well. The other major chain in San Francisco, the independently skewed Landmark Theatres, will convert its 14 city screens to all digital within the next 90 days, a spokesman confirmed. Currently, Landmark has two digital screens in the 10-screen Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. Of course, repertory houses such as the Castro Theatre, the Roxie Film Center and the S.F. Film Society still have their 35mm projectors, as well as a digital setup. The Castro even has a 70mm projector – it will screen a 70mm restored print of ‘Vertigo’ this month. So what does this mean for the moviegoer? As a viewing experience, regular patrons of the Marina and Presidio who saw ‘The Avengers’ on film in early June probably didn’t notice a difference when they returned in early July to watch ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ in digital (the theaters were closed June 18-21 during the conversion process). Some will miss the charm of scratchy prints and reel changes, others will love the high-definition experience of modern films (‘Spider-Man’ looked terrific on the Presidio’s digital screen). One side benefit is that older movies, which often cost more to restore on film than they take in at the box office, can be screened digitally, lowering the cost substantially. Century screened classic films on Wednesdays this summer, including at the San Francisco Centre, such as a 4K restoration of ‘Citizen Kane.’ The biggest impact of the conversion to digital is that it ultimately will be cheaper for studios and distributors, saving millions on the cost of film prints and shipping fees. No longer will they have to spend $1,500 to ship 35mm prints in 80-pound film canisters – DCP (Digital Cinema Package) hard drives cost about $150 to ship. For the moment, however, studios are helping theater owners like Lee make the conversion, subsidizing the installation of projectors by paying a ‘virtual print fee’ to Lee, although he had to pay for the installation of the digital projectors up front, for the next decade. ‘I have projected film for almost 40 years,’ said Lee, who owns hundreds of classic Chinese and Hong Kong 35mm prints in a collection started by his father, who owned theaters in Chinatown in the 1960s. ‘So I am naturally very familiar and knowledgeable if problems occur. We pretty much have 100 percent control over any type of technical problem. ‘The digital projection system is more computer related, and many problems are beyond our control. But the problems can be solved remotely anywhere in the world.’ Source.