PFC Digital Deadline FAQS
What is happening exactly?
Since we opened our doors in 1998, we have been working to stay ahead of the digital curve. We began with 35mm film and slowly integrated VHS and DVD projections. More recently we added high quality theatrical digital cinema and added High Definition content to our repertory. Until now, incorporating a new movie format was solely our choice. We could make a change if we felt it was worth the investment.
What is happening in the film industry today is something completely different. Now, there is no choice.
In the next 6-12 months (late 2013), an industry-approved digital projection system for movies will be the only format available for all exhibitors, large and independent. This change requires every theater in the country that plays studio-released product, to install new digital projection systems to continue operations. These new systems are called Digital Cinema Package, or DCP. The DCP system is a large, high-resolution digital projector coupled with a digital server that allows access to studio-secured hard drives. By this time next year, theaters wishing to play any film from the largest distributors must have this DCP system.
The DCP format was originally a voluntary standard with an unspecified time frame for implementation, and even last fall it was thought the shift might happen in three years. It also wasn’t clear until recently that distributors would stop making 35mm prints altogether. This has all changed.
Most of the large chains have already made the transition with the assistance of the distribution companies. Independent theaters were not part of the industry’s plan, leaving many smaller venues around the country with no other alternative except to raise the funds required to purchase their DCP systems – or risk closing their doors.
It is our mandate to continue to provide this community with the finest films available for years to come. We are currently mobilizing to raise the funds required to be ready before the final deadline, currently within the first half of 2013. Our own target for installation is Feb. 2013.
How much will it cost and how will you raise it?
With three screens under our purview and each unit costing on average $75,000, we are planning on a total cost of $225,000. Our goal is to raise $115,000 from our closest supporters and $110,000 through private foundations. In addition, we have built up a small reserve and are prepared to allocate $25,000 from this fund.
Why is this happening now?
The truth is the movie industry has been trying to facilitate this change for years for economic reasons. It is much cheaper to make digital prints of movies vs. film prints. The final straw, however, comes from the producers of 35mm prints who are now eliminating 35mm production as the demand from large chains has waned. As long as 35mm remains available and cost effective, studios will strike prints—but that day is more rapidly coming to a close than anyone anticipated.
What’s the rush?
The Arthouse community received letters in December 2011 that warned of this 35mm cutoff. We have until 2013 to make this happen, before our access to first run art films (like Moonrise Kingdom or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is cut off. We plan to convert all three auditoriums at the same time by the beginning of 2013. Our brothers and sisters in the Arthouse community have begun similar campaigns, or will be soon.
What was happening in regards to DCP before you opened the new PFC in April 2011?
The industry was in a wait-and-see period for non-profit and independent arthouses, especially those with smaller houses (like PFC). DCP specifications were designed for larger auditoriums, and the network of arthouse theaters felt strongly that there needed to be more options for theaters.
While 35mm was in decline, there had been no warnings that 35mm print production, a viable and profitable business for over 100 years, was going to be completely eliminated
What did you buy and why were you confident it was the best decision at the time?
What we purchased, two Christie 720p HD projectors, which had been in use for five years, were only $10,000 each, allowing us to project High Definition with confidence, while waiting to see how the industry would evolve over the next 3-5 years.
Also note that we planned for the 35mm to eventually be taken over by digital presentation, thus investing in used 35mm equipment at a fraction of the cost of new and soon to be obsolete equipment.
What has transpired between April 2011 and today as far as DCP and the end of film?
While the cineplexes of the world spent 2011 transitioning to DCP with the assistance of exhibitors paying weekly Virtual Print Fees for every film in every house with DCP - independent cinemas held fast to their preference for 35mm and a firm belief that 35mm would be available for many years to come.
It was not until December 2011, six months after PFC opened their doors, that Fox Searchlight sent a letter to their many arthouse accounts, providing the shot read around the world: 35mm would not be a supported format in the future. The most shocking part of the letter, and what no one saw coming, was the curtailed timeline: 12-18 months.
Has waiting a bit been a good think after all?
Waiting turned out to be beneficial for several reasons:
If Digital Cinema Projectors have a 10-year lifespan, then waiting has some tangible benefits. By waiting, we are already insuring that we have the latest and greatest models (in the last six months, the Dolby Digital servers have the latest 7.1 sound upgrades).
The last year allowed us time as a network of theaters organized via the Art House Convergence to approach the providers of DCP equipment and lobby for systems designed for smaller houses—and for the potential to buy at a discount under a group buying program. Thus far, no significant buying programs have made it to fruition, but several manufacturers have responded with systems that still meet the DCP specifications but are designed for smaller screens with shorter throws. These discounts by themselves will essentially pay for the Christie systems that we installed at PFC in April 2011.
The arthouse community has had a year to educate themselves, and now educate the public, about the changes within the industry. It’s important to note that not since 1927 and the abrupt shift to sound that changes have had such a profound effect on the film industry.
How does the DCP image compare to 35mm?
The good news is that DCP offers an amazingly sharp and bright picture. We’ve been 35mm film cineastes for a long time. But we’ve been stunned by the beauty, depth and clarity of movies projected on the latest DCP projectors. We think that this is a step forward into the future of visual presentation. Plus, many older, classic films are gaining new life after being digitally restored. Yes, some film lovers will always prefer 35mm film. But, on balance, we think that the switch to DCP is good in terms of the visual aesthetic experience, as well as the increased clarity and power that will be noticed coming from our sound systems, benefitting from a pure digital signal.
Can’t you lease the equipment vs. buying?
The only “leasing” available is really “financing” by another name. Leasing terms are onerous, and our operational budget is a lean one. We prefer to invest in our year-round quality programming. We have also explored the distributors' plan to "help theaters" with virtual print fees, but, as you might suspect, that option comes with too many strings attached.
What will happen to 35mm movies?
35mm films will exist in educational institutions, museums, and a few movie houses that are able to show archival prints. As a relevant distribution medium, 35mm prints will never again be made or distributed in anything other than an ephemeral way. PFC will have to remove all 35mm equipment to make room for the new DCP systems.