Boston Theaters Survive the Threat of Digital Conversion

(The Projection Booth at Harvard Film Archive. Photo by Langdon Kessner)

By Langdon Kessner


The biggest change that affected art house movie theaters throughout the country was the forced conversion from film to digital.

Normally, a film would be projected on 35mm, the standard format. Nowadays, film is rarely used in favor of digital copies. It followed this way much like the music industry, when vinyl was phased out in favor of CDs and mp3 or with cameras, when Kodak film was pushed out in favor of digital photography

Nick Lazarro, head projectionist at Coolidge Corner, explained how the digital conversion changed Coolidge Corner as well as other theaters.

David Kornfeld, projectionist for the Somerville Theater has been at this game for many years and has negative feelings towards digital projection.

“It’s vastly inferior. In terms of image quality, it’s a joke. Really it’s a joke. I’ve been staring at images professionally for decades.”

Kornfeld attributes the reasoning for the conversion to be for financial reasons. It’s cheaper.

“It costs about $3,000 to strike a 35mm print but $30 for a hard drive,” said Kornfield. “The print weights 60 pounds and you have to pay for transport. The digital weighs five pounds. 70mm print is 300 pounds. Shipping that versus a five-pound hard drive? Entirely financial. Studios saved a fortune.”

He added that the theaters saw no benefit to it and that their specialty 70mm shows like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which have higher resolution than 35mm, bring in more crowds than an average movie with digital projection.

Ian Judge, director of operations at Somerville Theater, said he hates digital because the theater “was forced to install it.”

“Our 35mm projection was FAR superior to the big chains. Digital may very well eclipse film in quality someday, but it hasn’t yet, so we were forced to spend $600k on installing an inferior product,” Judge said. “The rest of our industry had let film projection decline and so for them it was an improvement, but for us it was a downgrade. Plus computers are inherently unreliable.”

The mechanics of film projection are also easier to fix than a digital projector. “You can fix a film projector with a wrench, or rubber band, or WD40. You can’t do that to a computer,” said Judge.

“They just send you a new one and you have no movie in that house for a few days,” he said. “Luckily, we didn’t throw out our film projectors and kept them alongside the digital ones so we still show a lot of film on film, 35mm, 70mm. etc. It is a big part of our appeal and programming.”

The forced conversion to digital led to the closure of many smaller independent theaters.

Lazarro said that  “little cinemas that were privately owned just went away. They held out as long as they could. They played film as long as they could, but nobody was coming and the money wasn’t there so it closed.”

Another cause of this change, other than finances can also be pointed to the biggest movie of all time: “Avatar” in 2009.

“’Avatar’ is the reason,” said Lazarro. “Absolutely the reason.”

With a sarcastic tone, he recalled how everyone had to “see James Cameron’s masterpiece in 3D digital, but we’re not going to have any film print of this. This will be the next ‘Titanic’ and if you want to be a part of it, then you have to convert.”

Lazarro added that it was right at the tipping point when the equipment was just affordable enough that studios were ready to roll out with a major film.

He compared the situation where studios handled the complicated technology much differently. “Contrast that to more recently,  ‘The Hateful Eight,’ a movie that was shot on 70mm film where projectors are rare and hard to find. They did that right. They did it smart. They used it as a marketing tool and said they’ll find 70mm projectors, refurbish them and build an infrastructure to ensure that 70mm film will exist to show the film,” Lazarro explained.  “It was much more humane, since they provided the machine and operator for the 70mm film projectors. It wasn’t something where if you wanted to participate you had to get this equipment that’s big and bulky and we don’t know how to use it.”

Lazarro sighed, and said, “they could’ve done that digital. They could’ve helped places that we’re going to show their movies instead of forcing a hand.”

Some theaters had an easier time switching to digital than others. The Brattle, located in Cambridge, Mass., launched a Kickstarter campaign which had users pledge $149,580 to install a new digital projector and renovate their system.

Harvard Film Archive is also located in Cambridge and part of Harvard University, so they were able to get funding from the school to install a digital projector.

(John Quackenbush by his equipment at Harvard Film Archive. Photo by Langdon Kessner)

John Quackenbush, projectionist for the Harvard Film Archive said the conversion was painless. “We’re not a mom-and-pop theater. We are a school. We have to have digital and the best equipment for the students,” said Quackenbush. “It wasn’t that much more to go to digital cinema.”

One aspect they all agree is that film is a superior medium.

“Compared to film, film is a better medium. For picture quality, archive it is better,” said Quackenbush. He added, “Still, students are making films they’re shot on video that look great and I’m happy that we can show those too. It is inevitable and it will never replace film because it will look as good eventually.”

Despite the many changes to the industry over the years, Lazarro said he believes that Boston still has a “really vibrant film culture.”

“There’s still a lot of places to see movies and the fact that both Somerville and Coolidge run 70mm in the Boston area is pretty wild. We have a pretty healthy community here.”

Kornfeld, along with Lazarro, believe that general audiences can’t tell the difference between film and digital.

“The thing is you’re dealing with a public who can’t tell the difference,” said Kornfeld. “They’re not professionals so it makes sense why they can’t tell, but film is by far superior. I haven’t seen digital come anywhere close.”

About Langdon Kessner 4 Articles
Graduate student in journalism at Emerson College who recently finished a story on undocumented students in Boston. Now working on another project regarding immigration.