the candler blog

David Bordwell on the Digital Art House

Movies, Technology

David Bordwell’s growing series on the move from 35mm film to digital projection is absolutely stellar reading. In today’s entry, he tracks what the changeover is like for art house cinemas:

It’s comparatively easy for chains like Regal and AMC, which control 12,000 screens (nearly one-third of the US and Canadian total), to make the digital switchover efficiently. Solid capitalization and investment support, economies of scale, and cooperation with manufacturers allow the big chains to afford the upgrade. But what about other kinds of exhibition?

The long piece includes crack reporting from the Art House Convergence that took place just before Sundance this year. By my read, Bordwell offers the clearest, most extensive account of the state of the digital transition available today.

One thing I didn’t know is that the major studios are attaching all sorts of requirements to theaters that accept a subsidy in order to hasten the transition to the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) format.

More constraints appear if the exhibitor chooses to fund the changeover through the Virtual Print Fee. For example, VPFs oblige the exhibitor to screen only films supplied by the major companies–the ones that created the Digital Cinema Initiatives. If an exhibitor wants to play an independent distributor’s title on a DCP, that distributor needs to pay the fee, in effect helping to cover the theatre’s conversion. Other constraints are more obscure. I can’t report reliably on them because when joining a VPF program, the exhibitor signs a non-disclosure agreement pledging not to reveal details of the deal. But hints suggest that exhibitors could be prevented from “splitting,” that is showing two or more films in the same auditorium on one day. This is a practice that many art cinemas rely on because it allows them to vary programs in mid-week, or to compensate for having only one or two screens.

The first sign of danger, in my opinion, is that the studios (who comprise the Digital Cinema Initiatives, or DCI, which oversees the DCP format) require a non-disclosure agreement at all. Sure, it’s their right, but they’re effectively the only game in town. What are they hiding?

(h/t Ryan Gallagher.)

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