Volume 79 | Issue 5
September 2011

Making the switch to digital cinema

Rick Gardner

In the past five years, campus activities and union operations professionals have debated when or if the switch from 35mm projection to digital cinema should be made. The move from 35mm to digital projection is a paradigm shift. Projection systems have remained relatively unchanged since the 1930s, but the arrival of digital technology has  revolutionized the landscape of the medium. The reality is that 35mm movie prints are quickly losing relevant usefulness and institutions will need to take action to continue having film programs.

“Theatrical exhibition has really operated for the past 100 years on the original technology of film,” said Tim Warner, president and chief operation officer of Cinemark, in the April 2011 issue of Box Office. “But digital has upended everything. It’s an industry that’s being completely reinvented—a high technology platform industry that is going to bring tremendous capability to how theaters operate.”

According to Box Office magazine, there are nearly 36,000 theaters worldwide. Of these theaters, more than 14,000 will switch from 35mm projection to digital cinema by the end of 2011. Additionally, 3D theaters are estimated to increase from 3,300 to 7,800 in the same time period.

As this shift takes hold in the film industry, there are benefits for higher education institutions to consider when deciding whether to stick with 35mm or move to digital.

“With 35mm, you are only able to show 35mm films,” said Vice President of RealD 3D Kevin Faul. “The industry trend is that film is going away. It is really expensive to create a film, costly to ship, film prints get damaged, or the sound synch and quality can degrade. Films can melt and burn; projectors are bulky and loud. Film is more mechanical and more prone to errors and can’t provide the 3D experience that digital enables.”

Using digital eliminates some of these and other issues.

“With 35mm, if you get a good clean print, the picture will always look better than digital, but getting a good clean print is very hard to do,” said Jim Wallor, projectionist and equipment supervisor for the Michigan Technological University Film Board. “The largest reason for this is poor projectionist procedures at other theaters not cleaning their projectors regularly and mishandling of the prints.”

Chi Lee, former student films chair of the Union Activities Board at North Carolina State University, agreed: “Digital would cut down on mistakes projectionists make building up a film as well as finger prints on the film. Switching over to digital could also help cut down on the amount of labor hours.”

The cost of going digital

Despite potential benefits, the biggest consideration when it comes to switching to digital is the same as with any facility upgrade—the cost. Faul estimates that a server costs between $10,000 and $17,000, and he recommends choosing equipment that will play both digital and nondigital content.

“Go with the platform that is going to give you the most breadth in the content that is offered. Set yourself to be the most flexible,” he said. “Digital cinema equipment provides the most flexibility because you can display scientific or educational content and also digital cinema movies using the same projector.”

A digital projector may range from $35,000 to $100,000 depending on brightness, resolution, and performance, Faul said. Plus the price increases if 3D capability is desired. The polarization-preserving screens for 3D projection cost $9–$12 per square foot, plus the cost of the frame, if required, and the 3D system and 3D glasses.

While this cost may be a deterrent at first, Faul pointed out that the use of a digital system potentially has enough benefits to make it worth the purchase. 

“When you compare digital cinema to 35mm, digital is cheaper to ship, the quality of image and sound is better, it allows the ability to program alternate content, and there is less upkeep of the system,” he said. “The number of 35mm prints is decreasing, technology costs are decreasing, and it is better on the environment because it is a more efficient use of electricity and waste is reduced by eliminating film from distribution.”

Some institutions already embrace digital cinema

Currently, only 10 colleges have digital cinema, according to Barbara Nelson, vice president of Swank Motion Pictures, a company that handles the rights and distribution of most major studios for the college market. 

University of Nebraska–Lincoln
In 2002, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln became the first institution in the world to install digital cinema. The more than $170,000 system was placed in the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center and was part of a larger donation from the building’s namesake in the original project budget.

“We were way ahead of the curve, probably too far ahead of the curve,” said Danny Lee Ladely, director. “Right now, our problem is that our digital system is already obsolete. We were promised that it would be upgradable, but now we are having problems finding parts for the projector.”

Currently, the Ross Center is looking at leasing a new 4K digital cinema system. The estimated cost would be $1,827 a month for a 60-month lease. This would include a three-year warranty on the equipment.

“Having digital cinema is so important to us. We have been showing the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD, and those performances have become quite popular,” Ladely said. “We also have added the London National Theatre Live series. Because of the time difference, we download the performances via satellite and show them the same day. We also have encore performances for both series. Both presentations are among the highest in quality and reputation for what they do. With digital, it’s like being right there on the stage, and the sound is spectacular.”

Depaul University
Akin to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, DePaul University had a head start, establishing a digital cinema program in 2003 with a 2K projector system, according to Matthew Irvine, associate professor and chair of the digital cinema program.

“The digital cinema picture has a different look,” Irvine said. “The resolution exceeds that of 35mm film. While film has a grain, it’s dirtier, and it’s not as clean or crisp as digital. The switchover to digital is over. Film is dying. It’s gone.”

Michigan Technological University
Michigan Technological University did in-depth research before making the switch. The institution sent students to ShowWest in Las Vegas to preview the various digital projectors before making a decision.

“If you can afford it, go to a convention like ShowWest. This is the best place to see what is available, and usually there are price breaks and specials for educational institutions,” Wallor said.

In 2009, Michigan Tech had a digital system with Dolby 3D installed. According to Wallor, the installation process was completed over several days and cost approximately $79,000, $20,000 of which was generated from increasing ticket prices from $2 to $3 in the cinema. The Michigan Tech Film Board works closely with Moving Image Technology, the company that installed its system and trained projectionists on its operation. If they had to do it all over again, Wallor said the only thing he would change would be to include the special dishwasher for the 3D eyeglasses worn by moviegoers; otherwise, each pair must be cleaned by hand—on a busy night, that could be up to 500 pairs.

As far as problems are concerned, Michigan Tech only has replaced the lamp on the digital system. Wallor is surprised about the low life of the bulbs that are rated for 1,000 hours. Additionally, he mentioned an isolated case of a communication error between projector and server. The result was noise and fuzz. When they consulting Moving Image Technology, the problem could not be reproduced. The solution turned out to be just a reboot of the system.

University of New Hampshire
At the University of New Hampshire, Ken Barrows, assistant director for operations at the Memorial Union Building, is overseeing the installation of digital projection with RealD 3D technology. The estimated cost is around $85,000.

“We went with a 2K versus a 4K projector, so we did not pay the ‘newest of the new’ prices,” Barrows said. “The 2K is what is currently in most commercial cinemas right now, and it’s a proven system with the majority of bugs eliminated.”

The new system will also include a “scaler, which will enable us to project any digital image to a full theater-sized image. Shot a video on your iPhone? We will be able to get that on the screen in a big way. We will be able to use Blu-Ray, cable television, and just about anything. That’s the killer application. Alternative content is where the future is headed. We expect to see many new ideas take hold, and we won’t be limited by the 35mm film format,” Barrows said. 

Others proceed with caution

While a few schools have moved forward with digital cinema, many colleges and universities have taken a more cautious approach.
The University of North Carolina–Wilmington is currently using an older Christie digital projector and satellite feed to offer Metropolitan Opera performances as well as the occasional DVD version of films. However, 35mm is still used to project the typical Friday night blockbuster films.

According to Sandra Jackson, film program coordinator of the Lumina Theater, “Students would love to go 3D. But right now, it is out of our ballpark. If they are interested, I want them to do the research and help find the funding. Students sometimes have the ability to make things happen when we as professionals cannot.”

Florida State University is also in a “wait and see mode.” Director of the Askew Student Life Center Bob Howard said: “It’s best not to be a first adopter and buy the initial generation of any technology, like rushing out to get the first iPad. You want to wait a while so that the bugs can be worked out and the prices come down. The way it is now, the venue must cover all the expenses, and the distributor gets all the savings. The change will be very expensive. It will filter down to the university level after it has become more established commercially.”

Whether to switch

As Hollywood transitions from the more expensive 35mm prints to digital cinema, college unions and activities boards must prepare for the technological shift. The costs are slowly decreasing, the movie industry has standardized digital cinema, and the days of showing 35mm prints are numbered. Those in the profession have a responsibility to stay informed of this shift, budget appropriately, and decide the most thoughtful response to this change.

If preparing to embrace the switch or just having preliminary discussions about digital cinema, keep the following in mind: 

  • Many institutions that currently have digital cinema systems planned for the cost during a renovation or new construction. This is an optimal time to make the switch. “If your student union is under construction, be sure to incorporate digital cinema into your budget,” Nelson said.
  • When making the change, do not go for the cheaper product just to save money—this may not serve the institution well in the long run. “Don’t skimp on the projector or the lens for the projector. The projector is the thing. There is a gigantic difference between a 2K and an LCD projector,” Irvine said.
  • Don’t panic; there is time to make a change. “It is important to know that there is a solution,” Nelson said. “Just because 35mm is not going to be around in 10 years, that should not jeopardize your film program. There are a number of solutions out there. Eventually prices will be coming down. These costs will decrease as the volume picks up.”

Each campus must make its own decision, based on resources and needs, on when to upgrade to a digital system. And by paying attention to this technological change, union and activities professionals can be the ones leading that conversation.