wWho is benefiting from the transition to digital movie projectors? Not theatergoers; movies look basically the same as they did on 35mm prints, and ticket prices aren’t getting any cheaper. Not theaters; as the Globe reported, many small New England theaters like the Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton have either already gone under or are on the brink of vanishing, unable to afford new digital projectors that cost $60,000 or more.
It’s the big movie studios that are saving money: for them, distributing a digital file on a hard drive costs a tenth as much as producing the big film reels that have been a familiar sight for a century. Eyeing millions of dollars in savings, studios have announced plans to phase out celluloid completely within 18 months. Yet that plan could prove short-sighted unless it’s accompanied by much better efforts from Hollywood to ensure that small theaters survive the transition.
Keeping small-town, drive-in, seasonal, and art-house theaters alive isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. In many communities, one- or two-screen theaters are vibrant local institutions that connect Hollywood with passionate movie buffs. To pay for digital projectors, some small theaters have applied for grants or launched fundraising drives; the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline and the Brattle in Harvard Square are both raising money for the upgrade. But that won’t be a practical option for many of the thousands of other screens that face the prospect of going dark. Hollywood’s existing aid program has not reached many of them, since it effectively requires theaters to surrender control over what is shown on their screens and when.
Studios could help the transition by providing more flexible financial assistance. But the most effective help they could give might be time. The cost of digital movie projection systems has come down, from around $100,000 in 2005, and is likely to keep falling if it follows the pattern of most new digital technology. The second-hand market is also likely to grow. So if studios can’t provide more direct financial help to theaters, they could at least extend production of 35mm prints until it becomes more economical for treasured local institutions to switch on their own.