“Cineaste” #8: Digigeddon, pt.3

“The Double Life of a Cinéaste”
Digital Armageddon Part 3 –
The War on Celluloid is Far From Won

Our columnist calls out curious George Lucas for predicting the death of film projection prematurely

by Tyler Tharpe


“The Double Life of a Cinéaste” follows contributor Tyler Tharpe as he balances the business of running a drive-in theater in the Midwest with the long and arduous process of filmmaking.

We have to blame somebody, so, I’m going to blame George.

Several of the 20 remaining drive-ins here in Indiana are on the market or falling under new ownership, including my nearest competitor, which means that many proprietors are throwing in the towel and, I fear, there will be more to come. I certainly understand why because I am at the very same crossroads.

It is hard enough to maintain a 60-year-old property and its structures but, as most everyone knows by now, Hollywood will soon stop (?) distributing movies on 35mm film. On the low end, costs for conversion to digital projection are about $55,000. If you don’t have $55,000 sitting around – what business owner does, especially a drive-in owner? – then you have to finance it, adding a monthly payment of $800 to $1,200 to your expenses dependent on credit history. That is one hell of a chunk of change to fork over for the pleasure, in particular for a business that is only open five or six months out of the year.

I added a question mark to my comment above, stating Hollywood would soon be ending the process of distributing movies on 35mm. How soon will that be? The studios warned us long ago that 2013 would be the final year for film prints. So, when the 2013 season ended for me last November, I cut off a few frames of the last movie to run through my projector as a memento, thinking this was the last film image to ever hit my drive-in screen after 63 years.

However, a few months ago when I called my film booker – they secure prints and negotiate box office percentages for exhibitors – I was informed 35mm is still going strong in approximately 10 per cent of theaters open for business. Great news!

I had spent the winter months looking at financing options and was planning to have my projection booth converted to digital by mid-March, which is when I like to open for the season. After learning 35mm would still be an option, I thought, “Why the hell do I want to start paying $900 a month when they are still issuing movies on 35mm?” I decided to put those emergency plans on hold and save dollars in the process.

For my opening weekend in 2014, I ran a brand-new 35mm print of MUPPETS MOST WANTED, and the week I write this I’ve been confirmed with a brand-new print of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. I’m pretty sure after that, I will land prints of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, GODZILLA, and so on. This is going to save me lots of cash. As long as they continue to supply it, I will be here to blaze on with 35mm. Any other theater owners reading this who are dreading the switch over to digital, I would suggest you do the same.

Talking with theater owners and other industry people this past year, I found there is a slight belief that distribution of 35mm film may possibly go on for quite some time. Late in 2013, Paramount Pictures announced ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES would be that studio’s final release on 35mm. Talking with two different film bookers in the past month, they mentioned Paramount is most likely going to put out Christopher Nolan’s movie INTERSTELLAR on 35mm come the fall. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they will also release TRANSFORMERS 4: AGE OF EXTINTION on 35mm over the Independence Day weekend. To give up on remaining theaters that can’t (or won’t) convert means Paramount would forfeit tens of millions of dollars in box office gross.

So much for the words of one of the founding fathers of the modern Hollywood blockbuster, George Lucas, who has been at the forefront of this “Digigeddon” threatening to close many small theaters all over the world. More than 13 years ago, he stated the end of 35mm would be just a few years away. He was even so bold as to threaten back in 2002 that he would not allow STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES to play any theater not equipped with digital presentation. Anyone remember this? Well, that proved to be quite the joke on him, as only 10 per cent of theaters nationwide had been converted by the summer of 2002.

As for Lucas, he continues to rattle off nonsense to the press. Last June, both Lucas and Steven Spielberg spoke to a group at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things,” said Lucas about the future of movie theaters, according to an article posted to MSN Money. “Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game. It’ll be an expensive thing… [The movies] will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does.”

What? Who the hell is going to pay $150 or more for a movie ticket, even 30 years from now? That’s ridiculous.

There might be fewer theaters in the future, Lucas is right about that, but it is because when you attend a chain theater today, you are paying more than $30-plus a person for admission, popcorn, and a drink. Hel-looooo?!?!

In March at CinemaCon, a yearly meeting of movie theater owners in Las Vegas, Nevada, Brent Lang of The Wrap learned the percentage of movie-goers aged 18 to 24 dropped by 21 per cent in 2013. Is it any wonder? This age group makes very little money so it stands to reason they simply cannot afford to go to the multiplex. They will just watch pirated first-run theatrical movies on their devices.

You will not see people paying $150 for a ticket. You will see them going to smaller independent theaters and drive-ins where a family of four can get out of the house and enjoy the evening for a quarter of the cost of braving the indoor chain theater, including food. If anything, this current gouging at the chain theaters is going to kill the business since non-multiplex exhibition simply can’t float the industry as it operates now. Let’s hope the majority of these smaller theaters and drive-ins can survive Digigeddon by finding methods to afford those overpriced “Death Star” machines – I mean, digital projectors – and continuing to offer affordable entertainment.

At the same time, what you can do to help is put down your portable device, grab a friend or loved one, and get the hell out of the house on a Friday or Saturday night to visit your local, non-chain movie theater or drive-in. Almost every community still has a classic movie theater or drive-in that has been around for eons longer than that cardboard 18-plex monstrosity occupying the corner of your shopping mall parking lot, with their $8 large popcorn, $7 nachos, $5 small drink, 20 minutes of on-screen ads, 20 more minutes of movie trailers … Holy. F—king. Crap.

Every single weekend – I’m not kidding, folks – someone will walk up to me at the concession counter and say, “This is great… I didn’t know there were any drive-ins still left.” I politely respond, “Yes, there are 20 left in the state.” With the Internet, there is no excuse to not know that.

Look yours up right now! Go to Drive-Ins.com and search their database for all the drive-ins still open in your state. You can also visit Cinema Treasures to search for the nearest classic indoor movie theater, although they will list all movie theaters in your area. Just automatically zip right past anything that starts with “AMC,” “Carmike,” “Cinemark,” “Rave,” et cetera, and ignore the most atrocious of them all, Regal Cinemas. (Please, don’t get me started.) Attending even once a month will not break your bank. The time to act is now so we are never forced to solely “remember when.”

I’d like to end this Cinéaste by putting on my best flannel shirt and peering into the future where I predict the drive-in theater will be the last place on Earth to watch movies outside of our homes and man caves. The AMCs and Regals of this future world will all look like settings out of THE WALKING DEAD. Hollywood studios will be bankrupt and immaterial. Drive-in theaters will still exist, however, licensing the classics of yesteryear from Criterion, Swank, or some other retro supplier. Drive-in owners will have the last ironic laugh as they unspool – on 35mm, no less – great films like AMERICAN GRAFFITI to a field packed with faithful customers.

At least, that is the plan for my theater. It’s not going anywhere, George, thank you.


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Tyler Tharpe is an Indianapolis resident who has a B.A. in Telecommunications with an emphasis on film from Ball State University. He is currently an independent filmmaker and drive-in theater owner/operator who can be reached at tylertharpe [at] yahoo [dot] com.

REFERENCE: Kennedy, Bruce. “Lucas, Spielberg: Get ready for $100 movie tickets.” MSN Money, June 14, 2013. (Accessed April 2014.)

REFERENCE: Lang, Brent. “6 CinemaCon Takeaways: Fewer Blockbusters, More Raunch and What About the Kids?” The Wrap, March 27, 2014. (Accessed April 2014.)

“The Double Life of a Cinéaste” no. 8 © 2014 Tyler Tharpe.

CUBlog edit © 2014 Jason Pankoke

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