Pickford Film Center needs pricey upgrades as 35 mm era ends

For years, movie theater owners have anticipated the demise of 35 mm film—the standard of movie projectors since the birth of modern cinema.

Now, time seems at hand for the projector reel’s last wrap.

Earlier this year, 20th Century Fox—one of Hollywood’s major film distributors—announced that by 2013, it would stop releasing movies on 35 mm reels and switch to a new digital format. Other distributors are expected to follow.

The development was abrupt news for many small theaters, including the nonprofit Pickford Film Center in Bellingham, which has yet to keep pace with the major theater chains that have already converted most of their screens to digital.

“It was the timeframe that caught everybody by surprise,” said Michael Falter, the Pickford’s program director.

As the industry sheds its analog roots, small theaters face expensive equipment upgrades. Since profits in the business are already hard to come by, industry analysts predict thousands of American movie theaters unable to afford the digital switch could be forced to shut down.

At the Pickford, the message is clear: Convert or close.

Directors will now try to raise enough money to purchase new digital projectors for each of its three screens: two at its main downtown facility on Bay Street and the other just a few blocks north at its Limelight Cinema on Cornwall Avenue. The effort comes with a hefty $225,000 goal, which the center hopes to bring in through donations and grants, said Alice Clark, the Pickford’s executive director.

Projectors capable of running the new digital format, called the Digital Cinema Package, cost between $70,000-$80,000 each.

Clark said the center would like to buy equipment by next February.

Film distributors say the new mandated format would offer higher-quality picture and sound. Films made using the new format would also be cheaper to produce than ones using traditional film.

Film manufacture nearing its end

Movie studios have been building digital momentum for the past decade. In recent years, more blockbuster titles have been shot using digital formats.

The 2009 hit, “Avatar,” was the first film shot exclusively in digital to win an Academy Award for its cinematography.

Digital’s success has brought a significant loss in demand for makers of traditional 35 mm film.

The industry is dominated by two main players: Fujifilm of Japan and the American firm Eastman Kodak.

Kodak, whose products are considered a standard in 35 mm production and other photographic film types, is in the middle of a major restructuring after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2012.

With the lack of movie-studio demand for 35 mm film, which has always been expensive to manufacture, industry experts say its production could be approaching its final days.

Michael Falter said the announcement from 20th Century Fox cited changes in the 35 mm film manufacturing industry as a catalyst for the speedy timeframe of the digital change.

Mechanics to computers

Ryan Uhlhorn, the Pickford’s theater manager, has been a projectionist for two decades. Ten years ago, he hated digital films.

“It was kind of lifeless back then,” he said. “It was stale looking.”

But since then, he’s warmed up to the new technology, he said.

While Uhlhorn doesn’t consider himself a full convert, he said he appreciates the improvements that have been made to digital film’s color depth and image sharpness. Digital film also lacks the occasional scratches or other foreign elements that can appear on screen when using traditional 35 mm film, Uhlhorn said.

Falter said he doesn’t expect most filmgoers to notice any on-screen changes with the new Digital Cinema Package. These days, Falter said, audiences go to movies expecting the quality level that digital film provides.

Of course, doing away with traditional film projectors will bring major changes to the jobs of theater projectionists around the country.

An occupation that has always involved a high-degree of mechanical knowledge and a unique romanticism for cinematic machinery would have to shift to one that emphasized computer-based troubleshooting, Uhlhorn said.

“I’m sure there are a lot of older projectionists who have been doing it forever that just can’t take the fact that all that mechanical repair is gone. It depends on who you are, I guess,” Uhlhorn said. “But I’ve been seeing the writing on the wall for a long time. My biggest thing is that I want to go into a movie and I want the experience to be lifelike, have good color, and I want to be able to be pulled into the film.”

Conversion is not optional 

Alice Clark said one of the more difficult parts of the fundraising process has been explaining to the Pickford’s fans and members the complicated and, at times, highly technical details of the digital switch.

Another challenge is getting people to understand that converting the theater’s equipment is not optional, she said.

Falter said if the Pickford tried to save the money through its own profits rather than go to donors, it could take five to seven years to save enough money. Having to survive without new digital systems for that long would not be possible, he said.

Clark has planned a series of events over the next few months to help raise money and awareness. The Pickford has been accepting donations on its website, by mail and at its two box offices.

The center’s directors are confident they will receive the support they need from Pickford filmgoers, Clark said.

“People really want us here,” she said. “They want us to continue what we’re doing.”

The Pickford is accepting donations online at www.pickfordcinema.org, at both of the theaters’s box offices (PFC at 1318 Bay St. and the Limelight Cinema at 1416 Cornwall Ave.) and by mail at PFC Digital Deadline Campaign, P.O. Box 2521, Bellingham, WA 98227.

Contact Evan Marczynski at evan@bbjtoday.com or call 360-647-8805. 

Evan Marczynski photos | Bellingham Business Journal

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