Should Movie Theaters Have Switched to Digital? asks “Have you noticed anything different in the past few years of visiting your local multiplex?”

No more Harry Potter films every year mainly, but more fundamentally than that – does the screen look cleaner and more stable than usual? None of the scratches and jitter that you always used to see?

You’re witnessing the results of cinema’s digital switchover, just another step our lives have taken from the analogue into the digital world. It’s maybe something many haven’t thought about too much, as they sit back, munch popcorn and drink gallons of Fanta while watching dozens of blockbusters.

But considering how many people are affected by it and its impact on how cinemas are run, maybe we should be asking: what’s wrong with this picture?

Since the film-digital debate is kind of technical, just a bit of background so we’re clear. For over a century, physical 35mm film prints were the undisputed method for projecting films. Digital projectors have existed since the late 1990s, but the cost to cinemas of replacing their film projectors was a major deterrent. According to the British Film Institute (BFI), less than 10 percent of the UK’s screens were digital as recently as 2008, despite the now-defunct UK Film Council’s efforts to subsidise several hundred digital installations.

Enter Avatar, which gave digital projection’s possibilities a rocket boost in interest. James Cameron’s groundbreaking visual experience wasn’t the first film to be presented in new digital 3D, but the all-time highest grossing film left cinemas racing to install projectors to keep up with audience demand. Though very few 3D films since (native or post-converted) have approached Avatar’s impact, the tide was turned.

Installing digital projectors was still expensive but beyond that, studios and cinemas could benefit from the ease and low cost of cartridge-sized Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs), over film prints which cost more to make, are bulkier to transport and require more attention to project without problems.

That meant by 2012, in just four years, the UK’s film/digital ratio had completely reversed, the pixels showing on 91.4 percent of screens. Now it seems like only the BFI Southbank in London is guaranteed to have regular film screenings, and that’s basically the capital of British cinema (although lots of independents still support film too, we should note).

Beyond the screen however, digital’s rise has had a devastating impact on the skilled projectionists who handled and maintained film projection. Since digital projectors require minimal input and attention in order to play scheduled programmes, it’s been another way for cinemas to cut running costs through fewer staff.

It’s very easy to sympathise with those who have worked with film for years suddenly taken down by digital, their skills now apparently useless. For many of them, projecting prints is (or was) a delicate craft, every screening providing its own unique performance.

This is hence ruined by unskilled, generic automated projection, which film-supporters like critic Mark Kermode have noted can falter with no immediate solutions (“wouldn’t have happened with 35”).

This cinema efficiency drive corresponds with increasing complaints about lack of ushers and the resulting lack of audience etiquette (which we’ve covered before). This writer’s own experiences include cases of poorly calibrated 3D and lack of screen adjustment to account for aspect ratios, leaving a film surrounded by black bars.

Talk to a lot of these projectionists, and they’ll also express a deep preference for film’s look over digital presentations. The analogue picture is organic, vibrant and richly coloured whereas digital is flat and lifeless.


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