Big changes at the movies
DANIELLE FOX/TIMES NEWS Dean Deppe of Becky's Drive-in theater in Walnutport explains the technology involved with the server of a digital projection unit. Film distributors have announced they will no longer make 35 mm print film, forcing movie exhibitors to go digital.
A painted mural of 35 mm filmstrips adorns the outside walls of projection room number one at Becky's Drive-in theater in Walnutport, yet you won't find any 35 mm film inside.
The drive-in went digital in March was forced to go digital, actually. Film distributors have announced they are ceasing production of 35 mm film prints and theaters are being told to convert or close.
"Everybody kept believing that it wouldn't be this soon," said Darrel Beck, son of the drive-in creator's, William Beck.
With no other choice, area theaters, Becky's drive-in and Mahoning Valley Cinema, have gone digital. Yet the owner of the historic Angela Theater and lessee of the Mahoning Valley Drive-in, Mike Danchak, said the change has yet to come for the Angela and for the drive-in, it might never come.
The screen there is the second largest drive-in screen in the nation and a projector that would be able to service a screen of that size would cost around $80,000.
On Saturday, the drive-in was involved in a competition sponsored by Honda to win a projector, but results won't be announced until August.
If they don't win, "We're probably going to give up," said Danchak.
They only lease it. It's seasonal.
"It's not mine," he added.
He has the Angela Theater to focus on.
Danchak began working at the Angela Theater when he was 15 as an usher boy. He purchased the theater in 1993 and reopened in 1997 after it had been boarded up and out of service since the 1970s. When he first heard about digital projection, he thought the theater would be forced to close again. However, as prices on digital projection units slunk down over the years, his hopes rose and he said all three screens will be running digital films by the fall.
"We waited luckily. Now, you can get (a digital projector) for about $30,000," said Danchak, adding he could get a digital projector for as low as $10,000 from an installer he knew from back in his days of working as a technician for film companies.
The other theaters haven't been so lucky to make such deals.
Between the two screens of Becky's Drive-in, Beck estimated they have invested $150,000, not including the costs to reinsulate and update the projection rooms, an additional $15,000 according to drive-in operator Dean Deppe.
For the Mahoning Valley Cinema, converting all eight of the theater's projectors to digital cost a cool $600,000 and the owner of the theater and secretary of the Lehighton Entertainment Corporation, Lou Silverman said the costs do not stop there.
"… We are mandated to have a service company provide all of the technical repair work which we fully assume or are asked to assume the costs of. So, if we have a digital problem, we have to call in a company that is authorized and approved by the film companies to do the service work. It's a very expensive process."
Silverman added, "The service charges, to my understanding, are pretty much the same if you are servicing a larger theater like (Cinemark 20 and XD) in Moosic. For them to do service work is a minor expense, to us it's a major, major ongoing cost …"
It is also hurts the everyday, average Joe film technician.
"Previously, our servicer who serviced our 35 mm's was a local resident who lives within 20 minutes of the area and is a very competent old timer technical man. He is no longer authorized …," said Silverman.
Deppe and others at Becky's Drive-in previously handled the repair work or also called a local technician.
"Now, it either works or it doesn't. There are a few things I do understand. Otherwise, we have to call someone," said Deppe adding, "We don't have any spare parts.
"It's kind of scary though. It's an uneasy feeling. If one screen goes out for the night, it's a bad night," admitted Deppe.
Danchak, however has a backup plan. Since he was a technician for film companies before owning the Angela, he knows all the ins and outs of a 35 mm projector and he isn't ready to give up that sense of familiarity in the projection room.
"I'm going to go back to school," said Danchak. "There's a school in California that teaches you everything … It's only a couple-of-weeks course."
High costs and service charges aside, what has small town film exhibitors ready to explode like popcorn kernels or a shaken Coca-Cola at a concession stand is the unfair division of benefits accrued from the conversions.
Silverman said film companies had to spend somewhere between $1,600-2,000 to make a print and would also have to pay to ship the prints in large, metal containers.
Danchak explained that print films weigh around 75 pounds and film distributors used to have to store the metal containers in huge, costly warehouses. Now, a digital hard-drive costs the distributors $45 and they can be sent back and reused.
"It's a shame that they are putting the burden on the theaters to pay for all of this," said Danchak.
There are, however, programs meant to redistribute the wealth and to help theaters pay for the costly change. One program is the virtual print free (VPF) program, where a subsidy is paid by a film distributor toward the theater's first purchase of digital cinema projection equipment over a period of five to seven years. Yet, Danchak, Silverman and Deppe said they did not receive any funding or help from this program or similar programs.
While Silverman and Deppe did not pursue funding, Danchack applied to four different programs and did not receive as little as a reply back telling him "no."
"It's only for the big guys," said Danchak referring to larger, corporate theaters.
For the little guys, there are still positives.
"First of all, the picture quality is better. Brighter and much more clean. For instance, we're showing 'Monster's Inc.' this weekend. It's our third week showing it. There are no scratches. There are no dead bugs squished into the print. It looks as good as the first night we had it," said Deppe.
Adding, "We have been able to package double features like we have never done before. We don't have to wait. Before, if we didn't get the print on the (release date), we would have to wait several weeks."
For Danchak, the conversion has its physical benefits.
"I'm getting tired of lugging the print up the steps," said Danchak. "If the manager was off at Mahoning, I would start the film (at the Angela) then run up to Mahoning to start the film there and hope nothing happened. I'm looking forward to not having to worry about that."
The new technology even benefits those who are particularly nostalgic. An older, rare film is hard to find prints to that are in good enough condition to be shown. Danchak used the example of footage of Elvis Presley's birthday. Now, as long as there is a digital version of the footage, it is no problem to acquire the film and Presley fans can enjoy their king on big screen like they never have before.
Danchak also said that the theater could start showing local advertisements and showing special footage for birthday parties.
Another benefit of the conversion is that equipment is easier to use and Danchak said any kid who can operate a computer can operate a digital projector.
"The problem with film is you have to find and train people," said Danchak, and Deppe agreed.
"I could show you how to operate the projector in two minutes," said Deppe.
So he did.
Deppe showed a reporter that the unit is composed of two parts, the projector and the server. The projector contains a lamphouse and a digital light amplifier and the server is the technology aspect.
"It's very similar to an iPod. You ingest material to a hard drive and create a playlist. On that playlist, we have logos, advertisements and the movies," said Deppe.
On the server's screen are buttons one would expect to find on a DVD player showing a movie at home. All a projectionist has to do now is press play and he or she could walk away from the screen for the rest of the night.
No more splicing the reels, no more threading the film and no more 75-pound reels the future is now and it's convenient.
But, it's not quite the same. Instead of summing it up to bitter nostalgia, Danchak can explain why.
"Film has a mechanical shutter that shuts off the light when film is shut down. It's so quick that you can't see it but it makes the film more exciting. Digital is continuous. It makes you fall asleep," said Danchak.
"After a while, it's like there is something missing."