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How Digital Film Is Changing Movie Theaters

By Edited Jun 16, 2014 4 12

Film Reel(107451)

If you love your digital photo camera,  you have a small idea of how much movie theater chains love digital films.  We are living in an age where we will witness the end of celluloid wound on reels for movie theatre viewing, an end to special handling and the various problems with which projectionists must deal.  Ever see a film melt while you were watching the movie?  Or a film snap and have to be spliced before continuing the presentation?  Those are becoming issues of the past with the introduction of digital film to more and more theatre chains.

The Change

The retirement of celluloid is one championed by filmmakers and studios.  In response, theatre owners have had to shell out big bucks to retrofit their theaters with digital projectors which carry a price tag of as much as $250,000 a piece.  The cost would be prohibitive for each theatre to replace all their film projectors with the digital version, so studios have helped subsidize theatre chains willing to change over to the new technology.  If you've ever wondered how theaters can afford to show a film with only two people in the audience, it's because studios pay theaters each time a film is run, no matter how many people show up.

As happens so often with new advances, the digital projectors are rendering projectionists obsolete, or rather redefining the job.  A projectionist at a theatre is more likely to be a computer geek now with knowledge of hard drives and servers. 

New film releases arrive at digital theatres on a hard drive.  This electronic copy is loaded into a central server.  It still happens up in the booth behind the small square light source in the back of the theatre, but the process has changed dramatically.

The Advantages of Digital Film

With Digital film, studios no longer need to send multiple copies of a single movie release to all the theaters across the country.  One electronic copy is provided and loaded onto the server.  It can be accessed by each of the digital projectors for each theater auditorium. 

Digital Film Server

This is a huge cost savings all around.  In addition, because digital media doesn’t fade, scratch or jump the way film does, especially after repeated presentations, replacements aren't necessary.

Another reason theaters like digital film is that it offers much more flexibility in scheduling.  A local multi-plex was recently inundated with theatergoers for the midnight showing of a summer blockbuster.  The management decided not to crowd the theatres scheduled to present the film so that people wouldn’t have to sit in the awkward seats off in the corners.  When several of the theaters were occupied, there was still a crowd of people waiting for seats.  More auditoriums were opened, venues that were originally scheduled to show a different film but at the time, had no audience.  All it took was one person with computer knowledge to send the digital movie to the other projectors.   This ability to shift audiences around could never have been possible with traditional films and projectionists.

Imax screens present an extraordinary, larger-than-life experience for viewers.  What you may not know while you’re watching a digital film on an Imax screen, is two 2K projectors are used side by side.  Two images are projected over each other creating a brighter overall movie. 

Studios have one foot in the past and one in the future when it comes to supplying their product to theaters because they still have to make film copies for those theaters without digital equipment, but probably not for long.  Soon, celluloid will go the way of music on eight track cassettes and digital cinema will be universal.

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Jul 31, 2012 12:17pm
Wow--what a well thought out and informative article-Very impresive! and 5 big stars from me.
Aug 1, 2012 10:05am
Thanks for all those stars and the read! I appreciate your comments.
Jul 31, 2012 12:30pm
Fascinating article! I am one of those people who goes to the movie and doesn't think about the type of film being used. Thanks for broadening my knowledge. Tweeted!
Aug 1, 2012 10:07am
I had a tour of the local Regal Cinema recently. Before that I didn't know any of this either. The theater manager was very generous with his time and answered a lot of questions I had. I even got to see the server and the projectors. Thanks for your comment and tweet!
Jul 31, 2012 1:25pm
I love the flexibility it provides for the theaters - if more people show up, they open more screens.
Aug 1, 2012 10:08am
Thanks for your comment. I agree, flexibility has to be one of the best advantages of using digital equipment.
Jul 31, 2012 2:56pm
You have certainly answered some of my questions about movie theatres business - like how they can run a film with 2 folks in the audience. Super good stuff, thank you.
Aug 1, 2012 10:10am
I appreciate you comments Footloose. If two people show up, they theater no doubt, will be selling popcorn! And that's where the profits are.
Jul 31, 2012 11:21pm

This, of course, the future of theaters.
Aug 1, 2012 10:11am
Thanks for the read and the comment!
Sep 11, 2012 9:41am
Sep 24, 2012 10:47am
Just returned from vacation to find your helpful comment. I'm not an expert on this topic but was fortunate to have a tour of a local Cinemax by the theater owner who provided most of the information for my article. I appreciate you weighing in. I always welcome an informed voice with expanded information to enhance the read of my articles. Thank you!
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