April 10 2013 12:00 AM

How the conversion of film projection to digital affects filmmakers, fans and businesses

The Sun Theatre in downtown Williamston is the antithesis of the modern movie theater. At $4 (cash or check only) the tickets are about half the conventional price of admission. The concessions are cheaper — when’s the last time you saw 25-cent popcorn? And the theater has reversed the multiplex formula by having a single screening room that slopes gently for 100 feet before ending at a 37-ft. screen — no stadium seating here. 

But the biggest difference between the Sun and the megaplexes in town is flickering, scratched and cigarette burnt 35mm film images that move across the screen. Or at least, move across the screen until this December. Last year, a so-called “convert or die” ultimatum was given by major Hollywood film studios which could cost the mom-and-pop film house $80,000. That’s the cost to purchase a digital projector and modernize the theater.

The studios are all going digital by the end of year. Even if theaters wanted to stay with 35mm, they wouldn’t be able to find any copies to play.

The decision is a financial no-brainer for film distributors. It costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500 to ship a film canister to a movie theater, but it only costs $150 to send a digital copy. Even from a quality standpoint, it makes little sense for anyone to continue using film unless they’re a purist. But even as film’s passing creates a vortex that threatens small community theaters like the Sun, digital copy will be a boon to filmmakers and viewers alike. Digital, unlike film, gives filmmakers the ability to review as they shoot. It’s the difference between waiting for a disposable camera to develop and simply clicking over to “preview mode” on a digital camera. 

It’s not only theaters feeling the pull obsolescence. Former powerhouse companies like Kodak and Fujifilm Global are dying as their products lose relevance. A quick look at Kodak’s slide projector website is like gazing into a graveyard where all the tombstones have been marked “discontinued.”  

The death of a format, however, is not the death of an art form. Examples abound. Amid the death throes of the large centralized print industry, publishing has moved to smaller venues and thrived on the Internet. Digital copy and open source audio editing have made it easier than ever to remix or create music. Thirty-five millimeter might be dead, but the art marches on. 

“It’s hard to put so many decades of change in perspective,” said Kurt Wanamaker, a local theater historian. “It is like the transition of audio from tape to CDs to digital. People want better sound and better picture. It’s forced evolution.”

Forced or not, there is plenty of evolutionary growth available in film, said Dominic Cochran, director of Lansing’s Office of Community Media and a founding sponsor of the Capital City Film Festival.  

“In my opinion, (filmmaking) is the highest art form,” said Cochran. “It combines music, writing, design, graphic art, photography and light composition. Switching to digital won’t change the nature of it.”  

One thing digital has changed is quality from inception to completion. Movies have many moving parts, even in post-production, and keeping everything in order is complicated by shooting on film.  

“Film is one of those things where there is a little bit of a gamble,” Cochran said. “You’re already taking a leap of faith just deciding to make it. If you spend two years making something, you want to know exactly how it will look to an audience. You want them to experience it in the right way. If they don’t, because something went wrong with film development, that’s disappointing for you and them.”

It isn’t the Holy Grail by any stretch, and Cochran said that it is likely some filmmakers will still use film for stylized shots. (Recently, 8mm film was utilized in the “found footage” movie, “Insidious.”) Still, digital will be a helpful bridge between creator and audience. 

“In my lifetime, theaters have moved from showing three or four movies in one showing, to elaborate digital sound from every corner,” Wanamaker said. “Everything is constantly changing and evolving and consumers are demanding the latest technology.”

Even as the latest technological shift culls the smaller theaters from the herd, Cochran said he thinks communities should band together to keep the digital transition from wiping out local entertainment.  

“I think it is incredibly important to have them,” Cochran said. “Unfortunately, in Lansing and all around the state, we didn’t save those buildings. Grand Ledge and Williamston have these small theaters around, and its good inexpensive entertainment for people to enjoy.”

Sun owners Dan and Lisa Robitaille knew the only way to save their theater — which has been open since 1947 — was to go digital. So they did, both in the projection booth and with their fundraising. They managed to raise $47,232 through online crowdfunding platform Indiegogo.  Although the online portion has ended, donations are still coming in from local organizations, community members and Paypal (via the Sun’s website). To date, the “Save the Sun” campaign has raised about $66,000. 

“In the future,” Dan Robitaille said as he stood in the Sun Theatre lobby. “Do you think anyone will know why they called it a ‘flick’?”