The ongoing discussion of cinema's digital conversion regularly elides the precarious state of independent movie theaters. Side by Side, the recent pro-DCP documentary—though "infomercial" would be closer to the mark—doesn't go into the matter at all, nor does it acknowledge the disturbing implications of movie studios peering into the affairs of independent theaters via network operations centers. (David Bordwell wrote a characteristically astute essay about this earlier in the year.)
While digital technology has democratized the filmmaking process, it's also likely to enable studios to limit the number of movies that mainstream theaters can exhibit. Ever since Jaws and Star Wars ushered in the contemporary blockbuster, Hollywood studios have spent more money on fewer films that appeal to a lower and lower common denominator with the goal of maximizing profits. (Consider how Universal Pictures released their threadbare blockbuster Battleship across the third world before even bothering to open it here.) With network operations centers and virtual print fees granting studios a greater role in the goings-on of mainstream theaters, I worry they'll exploit their widened influence to pressure exhibitors into showing nothing but the most profitable movies. Needless to say, I hope I'm wrong.
Anyway, back to the New 400. I dropped in last Tuesday to observe the renovations as they were underway. Klein was there, thoroughly beat after a week of overseeing the procedure ("I've been running to Home Depot about ten times a day," he joked) and looking forward to screening movies again. Yet he and assistant manager Jenny Shapiro were nice enough to show me around the upheaval.
The projection booth looked like an exploded factory, strewn with film projectors in the process of being taken apart and DCP projectors in the process of being put together. I asked Shapiro what was the theater's plan for the 35-millimeter units. "One [of the four] is staying here," she said, "so if we get a print of something—like an art film that's only distributed on celluloid—we can show it. One of them is going to the other theater [which will open in Hyde Park later this fall] for the same sort of thing. And we'll keep the other two for spare parts."
I remembered from our meeting in February that Shapiro had studied photography at Columbia; she's a celluloid person through and through. I had to ask, how does she feel seeing the film projectors get taken down? "In my professional opinion, I know it will be good for the business. The new projectors will make things run more efficiently. We won't have to deal with any more shipping charges for big, heavy prints, and we won't have to have people staying into the middle of the night to take prints apart. We won't have to deal with scratching, dust on film, and things like that. But in my personal opinion, I'm not a big fan of the change. I'm a film person. I was the photojournalist for my yearbook in high school; I still take pictures on film. I always wanted to work with film—it has that magic to it, you know? But I understand why this big change is happening, so I just have to accept it."
Klein brought me into one of the theaters, where a new movie screen lay draped over the seats like a giant tarp. "We're replacing the screens in all the theaters," he said, noting that all of them were bigger than current screens. When I asked him where the old ones would go, he said he didn't know. "It's hard to sell [screens] because they're made to fit theaters; there are no standard sizes, really. And these are in perfect condition too. We only bought them three years ago when we opened the theater as the New 400."
I brought up the matter of virtual print fees. "We couldn't have done all this without them," Klein said, matter-of-factly. "But we had to do it now. Now's the time. You either get out of the business or you figure out a way to finance the change. And [virtual projector fees] are one of the most comfortable way to finance it." Was it easy to enroll in the VPF plan? "No. Every step of the way was difficult. It's a very complicated process between the studio, the VPF provider, the exhibitor . . . I'm not a businessman; I can't tell you how it all works. [Building owner] Tony [Fox] has been taking care of that."
Klein assured me that Sonic, the company handling the conversion, had made the process relatively easy. "They're kind of a one-stop shop," he explained. "They hook up everything with the VPF provider, they have teams of technicians setting up the projectors . . . they've got this down. They were one of the first—they were trying to sell people on going digital back in 2006—and now they're one of the biggest. So, when we talked to them, they had all the answers. They came out [to visit] several times and checked the place out. They knew what we needed."
How does he feel about the conversion? "I feel like I need a vacation," he said, laughing. "On the whole, though, I feel optimistic. I think everything's going to run smoother, easier. . . . Until now, we've been running everything on two channels of sound. Now we have five. I'm a musician, so I'm looking forward to the upgrade in sound."