Like so much of the rest of our lives, movies have been digitized. In most instances, going to see a "film" now means going to see a collection of ones and zeroes projected from a server, rather than a 35mm film print.
The change hasn't been overnight -- practical digital cinema was first demonstrated in 1998. But it took several years for technology catch up with ambition and for industry to standardize. Only in the last few years has digital come to dominate.
There are some holdouts. "All our budget houses are still film," says Mark Collins, director of projection technology for Marcus Theatres. The Milwaukee-based chain has 55 locations in seven Midwestern states. Collins estimates that there are still 1,000 screens nationwide that have yet to make the digital transition, because they can't afford it.
Movie studios have demanded the changeover, all but refusing to distribute film any longer. Theaters have had no choice but to adapt -- at significant cost. A digital system can cost upwards of $75,000 per screen. (Movie distribution companies have offered subsidies.) Seasonal drive-in theaters were the first and hardest hit.
Of Marcus' 685 screens, 657 are now digital, and conventional film prints for the rest are hard to come by. "For a movie like Annie or Fury, there were maybe four or five prints available for the entire Midwest," Collins says. "Our second-run houses will be lucky if we get hold of those prints. So death is coming quickly."
Madison's Sundance Cinemas opened in 2007. Digital projectors for all six of its screens were installed in 2012. General manager Merijoy Endrizzi-Ray says it was a "very easy decision."
"The sound and visual quality are stellar," she says.
Jim Healy isn't so sure. He's programming director for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque, a departmental coalition dedicated to showing "the best in international cinema history and fine films which would otherwise never reach Madison screens."
"Most of the time, film -- if it was shot on film and meant to be exhibited that way " has a warmth and lustrous quality that you sometimes can't get in digital facsimile," he says. Healy is especially concerned with conversions of classic films to digital.
"I've seen a number that are very good," he says. "They keep the values of the original film print. And then I've seen others that aren't too good. Too bright, or they're not sharp enough, not quite vivid enough. They don't quite get color just right. Skin tones especially tend to be a little bit off; too pinkish or purplish, even."
Here we perhaps enter the domain of connoisseurs, whose eyes are as educated as the palates of wine tasters; or maybe, as with fine vintages, the rest of us don't know what we're missing.
Soon it may not matter. There is no question that digital cinema is here to stay.
A more consistent medium
Movies work, basically, because your eyes are dumb. They like to hold onto the last thing they've seen. This persistence of vision is why a photographs shown in rapid rapid succession appear to merge, portraying motion. Since the late 1920s, the standard has been 24 pictures, or frames, per second.
With digital, it's easy to change the frame rate. For example, director Peter Jackson decided in 2011 that his Hobbit series would be filmed and projected at 48 frames per second, to provide a greater sense of reality.
"I found it kind of nauseating to watch, actually," says Healy. "I know Peter Jackson thinks it's the future of cinema, but I felt it was like watching a high-end soap opera on a giant TV. It had that kind of glossy video look."
Cinematheque and Sundance maintain the best of both worlds. "We always keep 35mm [projectors] at all of our locations, as we host film festivals at all theaters," says Endrizzi-Ray. "In addition, once in awhile a film like Interstellar will be released in 35mm by the request of the filmmakers, and it's wonderful to have that flexibility."
Warner Bros. and Paramount's Interstellar is something of a cinematic Custer's Last Stand, released in October in a staggering variety of formats, including 35mm Cinemascope, 70mm Cinemascope, 70mm IMAX and digital. This was done as protest on the part of its creators, in an effort to keep filmed release viable.
For around 20 years almost all movies have been edited digitally however. It's simply easier and more efficient. Digital is also more efficient for many exhibitors.
These days, theaters can obtain motion pictures in two ways. Some, including Madison's Sundance, receive a hard drive. Other theaters, especially chains, choose satellite downloads.
A studio will upload a specific motion picture to satellite only once. A theater or chain has the freedom to download it and only later decide to screen it.
A common misconception is that digital movies are just great big TV. Only in a few cases is that true: when live events such as an opera or boxing match are screened. They're streamed video.
Technology is not yet at the level to stream the considerably higher amount of data necessary for motion picture image quality, however. A single feature can be as much as 411 gigabytes. It takes days for a theater or chain to download such a massive motion picture file.
Digital has several benefits, though. Collins praises its sound, in particular. And "sometimes film can be testy," says Endrizzi-Ray. "It can scratch, get dirty or even break. Digital is a much more consistent medium."
Which isn't to say that problems don't come up. They're just different.
"It's a very, very complicated server-projection system," says Collins. "Failures now are more [along the lines] of, 'It just didn't work.' Very seldom do we have a problem once a movie's started, but because these are encrypted files, and there are keys to unlock them, sometimes there's an issue before the film actually starts."
Because Marcus, for example, no longer has to depend on hundreds of film prints for its hundreds of screens, all of this allows for greater scheduling flexibility (inadvertently frustrating newspapers that print movie times).
"There's many times [our managers] run a movie on a Friday afternoon and on Friday evening decide that a movie should be on a big screen," says Collins. "And then a movie that was supposed to do well [can] be put on a small screen. They can make those changes and on Saturday morning be ready to go."
But the greatest benefit accrues only to the movie studios. Digital is cheaper for them to distribute -- a lot cheaper. A single print of a feature film can cost $1,500 and up.
Oddly enough, despite the savings to Hollywood, ticket prices haven't fallen.
"They're taking a bigger and bigger piece," says Healy. "When a big movie opens, 80% of what you pay for your ticket, if not more, is for the studio. That's why popcorn is ridiculously overpriced."
Then there's the human cost. "Obviously, anyone running the movies in our theaters was out of a job," says Collins. "There's nobody in the booth that is responsible for running movies anymore."