One of the challenges revival theaters face is deciding where to land in the format war of changing projection technologies, with each format containing hidden costs and a variety of disadvantages.

From the dawn of the sound era to the turn of the 21st century, despite changing technologies in film production, films were projected to audiences in an identical fashion. In the film era, most movies were projected at 24 frames per second as a strip of film 35 mm wide ran through an illuminated light and magnification process.


For a small revival theater, the cost of shipping a 35 mm print is high, and due to the expensive nature of making new prints and the inherent degradation of film that occurs each time it is run through a projector, studios have been wary to lend out older or more obscure films.

At the end of last year, Paramount — with Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," the first film to be distributed entirely digitally — became the first studio to abandon the 35 mm distribution of modern films entirely.

However, the newer format of digital projection has brought about its own series of challenges, most notably, the high cost of adaptation and upkeep of digital projectors.

Digital films are distributed on a Digital Cinema Package, essentially a hard drive featuring a collection of files that include the image and audio of a film for theaters to project. DCPs are projected at a minimum resolution of 2K, or more than 2 million pixels of information, slightly higher than what can be found on a 1080p high-definition television. In recent years, 4K screenings of films have begun to take off in higher-end theaters, increasing the amount of information displayed on screen.

Despite the quality of a DCP, it still does not hold up to the fidelity of an original 35 mm negative. A pristine screening of the original film that ran through the camera will create a 1-1 analogue with what was originally captured, while a digital image can only capture a replica through the number of different pixels.

The advantage DCPs have, however, is they do not degrade over time or generation. The film that is screened is inherently the copy of a copy, while a DCP is identical to the original digital negative.

Last month, film formats hit the news with a double feature of prominent directors who are film enthusiast making an effort to save the format. First, Quentin Tarantino took control of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles and decreed that the theater would only show 35 mm prints under his ownership. Soon after, Christopher Nolan, director of "The Dark Knight" trilogy, made waves when he announced that his newest film "Interstellar" will be released to theaters with the capability to project the film in 35 mm or 70 mm a week in advance of its wide release, creating a window of time where the film can only be seen on film.

Kathleen Lyon, owner of the Senator and Charles theaters in Baltimore, said those who prefer film can be protective of the format.

"People seem to have an appreciation for it. It wasn't long ago that was all we ever did," Lyon said. "Some people swear they can tell a difference. It's more of an emotional connection. A DCP is actually quite excellent, but there's a romance associated with the actual reels and the film itself."

Lyon said the transition between 35 mm and digital projection occurred quickly, leaving many independent or smaller theaters behind. Nearly all modern films, and an increasing number of older films, are now only being made available through DCPs.

"Most films these days come as DCPs. You have to fight and angle, and plead and beg to get a 35 mm," Lyon said. "We're lucky when we're able to play a 35 mm film."

One of the challenges of digital projection is the rapidly changing technology involved. A 35 mm film reel, no matter how old, will work on any properly calibrated projector, while digital files can only be read and projected by that generation's technology.

Early adopters of shooting digitally included George Lucas with "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones," Robert Rodriguez with "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams" and Danny Boyle with "28 Days Later." However, because of the limitations of the early digital cameras, these films remain in a much lower definition than both 35 mm film and modern HD footage.

The changing technology also affects theater owners in their attempts to keep up. Sandy Oxx, director at the Carroll Arts Center, said they've had to pay to keep their system up to date, with upgrades coming just 12 years after an initial buy-in. The upgrades can add up quickly, with a new projector bulb alone coming in at $900.


John Healey, director of the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, said though they have the ability to project in multiple formats, digital screenings win out more often than not.

"We do still have a 35 mm projector that works and a 16 mm projector that works, but it's getting harder and harder to find people that know how to operate a vertical projector instead of [the industry standard] horizontal," Healey said. "Then there's the pure shipping costs of 35 mm film. I had to make a choice. If it costs $150 to ship reels of film one-way, suddenly it made it hard to sustain a film offering."

In the dawn of digital technology, as films began to be edited and color corrected in computers, the physical film had to be scanned frame-by-frame into the digital system, adjusted and then reprinted onto a film strip. In 2002, "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" became the first Hollywood film to be shot, edited and projected digitally.

By 2003, the first multiplexes in and around Maryland began projecting films digitally, switching out 35 mm projectors at their largest screens for digital film.

According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, 37,711 screens out of a total 40,048 screens at movie theaters across America have been converted to digital projection as of May.

One of the less-covered advantages of DCP projections over film is the ability to encode information for vision-impaired or hard-of-hearing patrons to enjoy a film simultaneously with general audiences. Technology includes closed captioning and auditory descriptive information packaged with the film itself to be delivered through a personal captioning device or headphones. For a 35 mm projection, closed captions cannot be isolated, but are rather burned into the image itself.

The cost of striking a print from a digital source ranges between $1,500 and $4,000, and the cost of creating a new DCP can be as low as $150, according to the article "Digital Projection in Repertory Theaters" that was published in New York University's The Culture of Archives, Museums and Libraries. However, the majority of films ever made are currently stored exclusively on 35 mm prints, and a new DCP scan of a print — including cleaning and color timing — can cost more than $40,000, more than many studios are willing to pay for a catalog film with limited appeal.

Reach staff writer Jacob deNobel at 410-857-7890 or jacob.denobel@carrollcountytimes.com.