If you’ve been to Raleigh’s Mission Valley Cinema lately, you might have noticed a gigantic 35mm film projector and its accompanying platter system sitting out in the lobby. Perched in front of it is a mock tombstone with the words “R.I.P – Sept. 10, 2012,” the last day that projector – or any 35mm projector – was used in the six-auditorium multiplex.
Unless you’re an avid moviegoer or a cinephile with a discerning eye, you may not have noticed that movies aren’t being shown on film anymore. Digital projection, a fancy curiosity a decade ago, is now the norm. With major studios and distributors opting to release films on digital prints instead of film stock, theaters have had to overhaul their projection systems and pile up on digital video projectors.
John Munson – who runs the Rialto, the Raleigh art-house theater – made the switch to digital projection a year ago. And as someone who’s worked as a film projectionist since he was a teenager (and who also doesn’t see a major difference visually between film and digital projection), the 51-year-old Munson welcomes the change.
“I mean, it’s a lot more convenient,” Munson says. “Usually, it would take me about 45 minutes to put a movie together, and another 35 minutes to take it apart. So, that’s nice to kind of not have to do that anymore with 35mm – just take the hard drive, put it in and walk away.”
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While digital projection may ease the workload of theater folk, a few, moviemaking A-listers still want film projection to have a place at the movie house.
Quentin Tarantino, who called digital projection “the death of cinema” earlier this year, has made it his mission to keep 35mm relevant. His crusade has a home at the New Beverly Cinema, a Los Angeles-based repertory theater he saved from extinction by becoming its landlord. Recently, Tarantino took over its programming, making sure all films shown at the theater will be in 35mm.
Christopher Nolan is also a film print devotee. His latest film, “Interstellar,” which comes out this week, will be shown in a number of formats, including 35mm and 70mm. (The film was shot on 35mm and 65mm IMAX.) Nolan has irked some theater chains by offering early 35mm film prints to theaters that still have 35mm projectors, giving them a two-day head start before the film’s official release date this Friday. (While no Triangle-area theaters will play “Interstellar” in 35mm, it will be shown in some venues across the state, including two Charlotte theaters.)
Even though fewer than 400 screens will show “Interstellar” on film (a mere fraction of the estimated 40,000 screens in the U.S.), theater chains were still peeved.
Fed up with all the bellyaching, Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League wrote an open letter on Deadline.com urging theater owners to quit hating and start participating.
“I ask all cinema owners, what is our relationship to filmmakers?” League asked. “I consider myself a venue in service of the creative visionaries who create the stories and experiences for which we charge. If Christopher Nolan prefers for his movie to be projected from 35mm or 70mm prints, then we as an industry should respect his vision and do our best to support it.”
He later added, “We should be finding ways to inspire a young generation to fall in love with going to the cinema just like Tarantino, Nolan and many of us theater owners did when we were kids.”
Munson is a theater-runner who shares League’s sentiments.
“If that’s the way (filmmakers) want to do it, let ’em do it,” he says. “I have no problem letting them do it. If I’m working at a theater that doesn’t get to play it, well, I would be annoyed, I suppose. On the other hand, the whole system is different than it used to be. I mean, if this had happened 20 years ago, when there’s, like, one film coming out a month, you know. Whereas now – wait, you didn’t get ‘Interstellar’? Wait a week. You’ll get something else.”
I know several of my cinephiles may have an aesthetic preference in how they see their movies, choosing film for its authentic, analog richness over digital’s slick, snazzy sharpness. For me, and I’m sure a lot of other moviegoers, it all comes down to how a movie is presented. As someone who has sat through many badly screened feature presentations in both film and digital, I just prefer the film to run smoothly no matter which format is shown – and, also, for the movie to be good, of course.