Introduction: A Guide to Converting to Digital Cinema for Art House Theaters
The County Theater switched from 35mm film to Digital Cinema on June 28, 2012 (with the official “ribbon cutting” on July 12, 2012). These notes chart that journey: how we raised the money and paid for the conversion; what the timeframe was; who installed what equipment; what prep work was needed prior to installation; whether to keep 35mm projectors; and various other details and issues.
A lot of small theaters are dreading the conversion to Digital Cinema. As a result, these notes are half pep talk and half practical guide. I hope that our experience will help other theaters confront this challenge. The good news is that Digital Cinema conversion is not as daunting as it initially seems.
Some background: the County is a nonprofit, community-based, mission-driven theater. Built in 1938, it was twinned in the early eighties and has 150 seats in one auditorium and 120 in the other. Our nonprofit group saved the theater in 1993. The County is located in downtown Doylestown, a small town located one hour north of Philadelphia.
We formally started our digital journey in May of 2011. We decided that we had two stark choices: convert or die. We communicated that existential challenge to our members and friends with the following rallying cry: “Don’t let our screens go dark!” Fourteen (14) months later we installed our Digital Cinema equipment.
Digital Cinema vs 35mm Film
Before we talk about the nuts and bolts work of the conversion, let’s first discuss the issue of film vs DCP. (“DCP” stands for “Digital Cinema Package” and refers to the files on the hard drive that comprise a movie.)
I’ve always been a huge film supporter. Movies were meant to be shot on and screened in film, right? The County had excellent 35mm projectors, maintained by a great service company. Who in their right mind would want to switch, if they didn’t have to?
I have a confession: I’m a DCP convert. I am here to tell you that our Digital Cinema image is BETTER than the 35mm image that we had before. (Heresy!) The DCP image is clear and bright, rich and beautiful, stable and rock-solid. Part of me feels like I’ve been brainwashed, but I can’t deny what my eyes are telling me.
Want an example? As we changed over at the County, we were running Moonrise Kingdom on 35mm film in one auditorium and testing it on DCP in the other. The DCP image won easily – it made the 35mm image look soft and dull and bouncy. The DCP image was clean and bright and solid – and the sound was fuller, which was an unexpected surprise. Shot on 16mm. Projected in DCP. Beautiful.
Here’s another example. We screened The Deep Blue Sea in DCP. I had previously seen it in 35mm. A nice Terrence Davies effort. Then we showed it in DCP at the County. Wow! It was one of the most visually-stunning movie experiences that I’ve had in a long time. DCP, with its crisp, rock-solid image captured the beauty of Davies signature tableaus. The light design of a perfectly-set London flat with Rachel Weiss’ cigarette smoke slowly curling upward almost brought tears to my eyes. So evocative. So beautiful. So sad. Shot on 35mm. Projected in DCP. Simply awesome!
Is DCP perfect? No. I saw a little “motion artifacting” in To Rome With Love in one 360 degree shot. (Otherwise it looked fantastic.) But the balance is tipped heavily in favor DCP. I know that there are film purists who will dispute my judgment, who will argue that film has greater depth, more nuanced color and shading, better movement reproduction, more warmth. OK, I hear you. That’s what I used to think. But I’ve changed my mind (at least for movie projection).
I had to share this “personal conversion” experience up front. It’s been a slowly growing awareness that’s eaten at me for over a year. I’ve anguished over it. Now I’ve decided to go public.
My name is John Toner and I’m a DCP believer.
Decision to Go Digital Cinema
OK. Back to the challenge of converting to Digital Cinema.
In seems obvious, but our first step on this journey was deciding to convert to Digital Cinema. Any theater that is dependent on “upper tier” art films for its business revenue must make that decision now. If you show films like The King’s Speech, The Artist, or Moonrise Kingdom, you must convert to Digital Cinema. We all know that film is being phased out. How long do you have? Let’s say you have until the end of 2013 (which is not a given). You should probably plan on taking at least 12 months to raise the money, line up the equipment, and do the installation. It took us 14 months at the County (longer, if you count our false starts). Our sister theater, the Ambler Theater will do its installation in the fall, after 18 months. If delaying the conversion costs you the booking of the next Marigold Hotel, just think of the money you’ll lose. The time is NOW.
Paying for the Conversion
For preliminary budgeting purposed, you can use a figure of $100,000 per screen. We spent more. It is definitely possible to spend less. But $100K is a round number for planning purposes.
We raised the money for the conversion ourselves. Being a nonprofit made that possible. Our “Digital Cinema Campaign” raised $310,000 from 1100+ gifts. More than we needed! We did receive some large leadership gifts, but most gifts were $100 or less. It was very much a grass roots campaign. Our tag line was “Don’t Let Our Screens Go Dark.” It was not about buying cool new equipment. This was about “if we don’t convert, we’ll have to close.” Our members and friends understood the danger and supported us. (There is much more detail on our campaign on our website. Feel free to borrow from our materials. We also discuss on the website how we’re going to use the extra money that we raised.)
We have not signed a VPF (Virtual Print Fee) deal. There are a number of reasons for this. First, we have the luxury of not having to sign one. Second, we are concerned that small distributors might not play our theater, if they determine they’ll lose money after paying the mandatory VPF. We’re also concerned about distributors being more involved in our programming decisions and especially with “preemption” issues that arise when we play classic movies, or performing arts, or have filmmaker appearances (as well as additional penalty fees). Put another way, we have a general anxiety that VPF deals tie you too close to the will of the distributor. As a small independent, we value our freedom. We want to make all of our own programming decisions. Don’t get me wrong, we LOVE our distributors – without them we wouldn’t exist. But, I ask you: aren’t distributors going to want something in return for their VPF payments? At least some of them? (You know who I’m talking about.) If none of that makes sense, then just chalk it up to fear of the unknown. I admit that we haven’t fully explored this option, but, on the other hand, I don’t see ANY other theaters like the County who have a VPF deal. (Maybe “for profit” theaters can lead the way and show us how to make the VPFs work for independents.)
Fundraising and the Timeline
Our case for the campaign was simple: Digital Cinema is an existential challenge. Soon, film will not be available. We need to upgrade or die. That was the ONLY message that we communicated to our supporters. We did this entirely with our own staff, using no outside fundraisers. We did no “feasibility study.” This was mostly a “passive” grassroots campaign, rather than an “active” direct ask to big donors and targeted givers. We made our appeal via our website, handouts, slides, posters, press releases and especially with quick “one-take” videos that we showed before movies and on our website. We kept our members and patrons updated with constant follow ups to all of the above.
Our timeline was 14 months from the start of fundraising planning until installation. We started in May of 2011 and completed installation on June 28, 2012.
Here is the timeline in more detail:
- May & June, 2011 – Planning
- July & August, 2011 – Preparation of materials (website, handouts, slides, poster, press releases, videos, etc.)
- September & October, 2011 – Roll out of materials and education of patrons. This education of our supporters as to why we had to switch, was particularly important. We did not ask for contributions during this time period.
- November, 2011 to March, 2012 – Request for support: via email, direct mail and all of the foregoing. We also made a few personal appeals to “big gift” prospects – but not many. We officially concluded the campaign in early April, 2012.
- March, 2012 – Final contract for equipment and installation signed.
- April – June, 2012 – Prep work to ready projection booth for Digital Cinema.
- June 25-28, 2012 – Installation of Digital Cinema Equipment.
Decision on Equipment
Digital Cinema equipment is computer equipment. Worse, it’s a computer network system. As a result, we started with the following question: who is going to service our Digital Cinema computer system? Who’s going to keep it running? We were first choosing a long term service relationship, rather than the actual hardware. We have worked with our booth technicians (Cardinal Sound and Motion Picture in the DC area) for 15 years and have great faith in them. We were happy with the ongoing digital service that they were offering for Digital Cinema, so we signed a comprehensive installation and service contract with them. Did we check with other theaters and installers to compare alternatives? Yes. But, for the County, we determined that Cardinal would “take care of us” in digital as they have in 35mm film. We didn’t want the service to be done by a manufacturer or by a NOC (Network Operations Center). An important aspect of ongoing digital service is the ability of the service company to access your equipment via the internet. Most of the service will be done remotely, rather than onsite. This is a big difference, and a potential advantage of Digital Cinema. This was also a big part of the preparatory booth work that I discuss in the next section. (Although we didn’t get a proposal from Boston Light & Sound, they are particularly recommended by many Art House theaters.)
Once we made the decision that Cardinal was going to service and install, we got down to details on what equipment to buy. Our top priority was that the equipment had to be upgradeable. Upgradeable from 2K to 4K, upgradable to a more rapid frame rate, and upgradable to 3D. Do we currently need any of these features? No. But we didn’t want to be boxed in and precluded from future upgrades that might be necessary in a year or two. This meant that we weren’t getting the cheapest option equipment. But we were willing to pay a “premium” for upgradability. It was also important that our equipment be able to interface with our alternate content sources, like BluRay, our Emerging Pictures server, NT Live satellite receiver, etc.
We worked back and forth with Cardinal to determine which equipment was right for us. We got our first preliminary proposal in November of 2010, which was false start. We regrouped and more informed discussions began in September of 2011. We finally hammered out the final proposal on March 30, 2012. We advise that you allow a lot of time for this phase of the process. It helps if you see the equipment in action at other theaters, if you can. If you have contacts with anyone at a local multiplex, that can be an entry. Often your installer can make some calls and clear the way.
We chose the specific equipment listed below. (This list includes only the major pieces of the Digital Cinema install, but not everything. There were various reasons why we made the choices that we did, some of which may not be apparent on the face of it. I don’t want to get too much “into the tall grass” here. If you have a specific question, I’d be glad to discuss why we went with this equipment.)
Here is the major equipment:
2 Barco DP2K-23B projectors; 2 Barco ACS-2048 alternate content input scalers; 2 Dolby CP750 DCinema processors; 2 Dolby DSS200-3T DCinema player/servers; 1 Dolby 3D upgrade w additional 4K lamphouse. There is also a bunch more detail stuff like automation and racks and cabling and UPS and the like.
How long will Digital Cinema equipment last?
This is a really nasty aspect of the digital conversion. The current industry consensus seems to be that the current generation of digital projectors will last 10 years. Is that just wishful thinking? Are you using the same personal computer that you used 10 years ago? It’s laughable when you ask it that way, isn’t it? What if we have to do this all over again in 7 years? Or in 5 years? That’s why we purchased equipment that is upgradeable – to hedge the time frame for complete replacement. We were lucky enough to raise more money than we needed for the current installation. That extra money was immediately earmarked for upgrades and replacements. In addition, we plan to put aside additional money every year to add to that equipment replacement fund. I think all theaters will have to do this. As soon as you convert, you’ll have to start raising the money to buy replacement equipment. Welcome to the brave new world of digital cinema!
What prep work is needed prior to Digital Cinema installation?
We did a fair amount of preparation work in our projection booth prior to the installation of the digital cinema equipment. Below are the major areas, the questions that you need to ask, and what we did:
Electrical. Do you have the right service? Are you adding new service and keeping your 35mm? We had to switch from three phase 220v to single phase. We also needed to add a number of new 110v lines for secondary equipment. We did not need to bring entirely new service to the booth, because one Digital projector reused the service from a replaced 35mm projector and the other Digital projector used the service from a previously abandoned 16mm projector. We kept one 35mm projector w platter, with the future plan of reinstalling one 35mm to form a dual reel-to-reel system.
Conduits. What conduits do you need? We added many conduits for our new networking.
Ports. Do you need to add new view ports? (We didn’t at this time.)
Networking. This was the biggest addition to our prep work. First, our two digital cinema projectors needed to be connected together and to their audio/processor racks. Then, the following “subsystems” of our overall system needed to talk to each other: the “intra-networked” digital cinema; the managers office computer; the service providers off-site computer; the ticketing system; our off-site admin office; the alternate content providers (Emerging); satellite on roof (NT Live). Finally, it is especially important that the system have a robust firewall, which also allows efficient, quick transmission of information. I strongly advise that you hire a computer company with specialized networking skills.
Fans. Make sure that you have roof exhaust fans that are adequate to the job of cooling the digital projectors. They will shut down when they overheat (they’re such computers!).
Screens. (This is an important item, which I completely forgot to include when we first posted. I’m adding it now- John T 8/30/12.) We replaced our normal cinema screens with MDI “microperf” screens just before our Digital Cinema installation. These “micro” perfs are smaller than the “cine” perfs on normal screens. Why did we change? We changed because we’d been driven crazy by a “moire”/visual artifacting problem with our previous 720p video image. The moire effect produces weird “zebra lines” on your screen image (think of a striped tie on a tv screen). On a movie screen, this effect is caused if the lines of perf holes line up with the lines of pixels of a movie. It only happens if they line up exactly, which they did for us. To correct this for our previous nonDigital Cinema screenings, we’d have to zoom the movie image in or out until the moire pattern disappeared. We did NOT want to install a super expensive system and have this occur. And although we were told that it probably won’t occur with 2K projection, we decided to make a preemptive change. We love the new screens and the image looks great. So, the moral of the story is be aware of this potential problem. If you don’t have it now with your video projection, you’re probably ok. And you can always wait to see if it does occur, which it probably won’t. (Walt Fay of Fay Studios installed the screens, as well as motorized masking. He does an awesome job. )
Our team: In addition to the Digital Cinema installer, we had our architect (JKR Partners) hold our hand in translating the electrical needs, our new computer network experts (CMIT Solutions of Central Bucks), our electrician (Wayne Phillips Electric), and our HVAC Company (Freedom Enterprise, Inc.). We had worked with all of these folks over the years, except for the computer network company – they were our one new addition. It also helped that, with the exception of Cardinal, all of our team is local.
If you don’t play “King’s Speech” type films or can’t afford to switch to Digital Cinema now, there are alternatives. Many small distributors will provide movies in BluRay and other digital formats. In addition, there are content providers that will package and provide movies and other content to you in digital form. The advantage of using these formats is that you don’t have to buy an expensive DCP Digital Cinema system. We used this approach prior to converting to DCP. We have showed films and operas and ballets from Emerging Pictures. We also showed National Theater Live from satellite from ByExperience. We will continue to use their services through the alternative content interface on our Digital Cinema projectors. Other companies and sources are: Specticast and Proludio and indieFilmNet. They are all worth checking out.
We previously projected this alternate content through our Sanyo WF10 and WF20 projectors. These projectors have 720p resolution and cost about $10K per machine. They looked pretty darn good. You’ll still need to integrate these with your sound system and with your content. But the whole thing is much, much less expensive than Digital Cinema.
This may be adequate to cover the type of movies and alternate content that you want to show. Or it may buy you time until you have the money or financing to buy a Digital Cinema system. A problem with this approach, of course, is that it uses money that could be dedicated toward buying Digital Cinema equipment. Another approach, if you have more than one screen, is to buy one Digital Cinema projector at a time. Each theater has to balance the costs and timings that works best for its situation.
In terms of what distributors play what formats, it seems like there will be a 2-tier system: those distributors that will only play DCP and those that will play DCP as well as nonDCP digital formats. Clearly, the major studios and the mini-majors like Focus, Fox Searchlight, Weinstein, etc, will only play DCP. Who else will be “DCP only” is an open question. Sony Classics seems to be the biggest Art House player that will offer some nonDCP digital alternatives. Will that continue to be the case? Many smaller distributors like Music Box , Magnolia, and IFC will offer various nonDCP digital alternatives.
I made no attempt to make the above list definitive. If you want to comment to clarify or add distributors, please do. Or if you have a link to a good discussion of this topic, I will amend this post to add it. I also point out that the above is subject to change as companies’ distribution models evolve.
Whether to Keep 35mm projectors
We intend to keep our 35mm projectors. We hope to have a dual projector reel-to-reel set up in one auditorium at each of our two theaters. We want to keep the 35mm film technology alive for future generations to see. We think that in the future, though, 35mm films will only be available to be played “archivally” with dual projectors in a reel-to-reel “changeover” format. In other words, the platter system is dead. Maintaining 35mm projectors will undoubtedly be an added expense, as you’ll need to organize your projection booth to accommodate both DCP digital and 35mm projectors. Extra electrical service may be necessary. Added ports may be needed as well. Some projectors may even need to be movable based on available booth room.
We think that 35mm film, very soon, will be equivalent to vinyl records in music. Kept alive for a small niche market of devoted aficionados. Each theater will have to determine whether maintaining 35mm film serves its mission and whether it can be financially justified and maintained. For the County and Ambler Theaters, we think that preserving 35mm film projection does fit into our mission. We just hope that we can financially meet that mission. We also hope that, as film becomes rarer, that it will be available to venues other than “film museums” in major cities. But that’s a whole other story.
I hope that these notes have been helpful to you. It’s been a two year journey for us. If you are a small Art House theater, please feel free to borrow from our approach and materials on our website. Each theater’s campaign will be unique, though, so I imagine that the materials will need to be modified for each specific situation.
We invite you to leave comments and questions and corrections, if only to let us know that someone is reading these notes. If you linked here from the Art House Convergence Google list, leave comments in that forum as well.
Thanks and good luck.
About the author
John Toner is the Executive Director of Renew Theaters, Inc., the nonprofit management company that runs both the Ambler and County Theaters in suburban Philadelphia. Both of those theaters are separate nonprofit entities, with their own boards, members and finances. Toner has also worked with and been on the boards of other Art House theaters, including the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and the Hiway Theatre (both of which are also in the Philadelphia area). Toner has been a movie lover since childhood, but Jacque Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating was the film that changed his life in 1982. The Lady Eve is officially his favorite film (whatever that means). He is an aging baby boomer and a recovering attorney.