Pittsburgh theaters trying to keep up with digital movie trend

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The Regent Square Theater has been showing old films on Sunday evenings for years. But classics such as "Goldfinger" and "Rear Window" are now being shown using a new digital projector at the one-screen theater operated by Oakland-based Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

James Bond will still win the day and Hitchcock will continue to haunt viewers. But the switch to the new technology signals a broader shift in film distribution and projection that has created off-screen drama for cinemas and film festivals across the country.

The upgrade to digital can cost theaters tens of thousands of dollars, and many independent theaters are struggling to pay for it. Meanwhile, the various types of films and projectors now available can create a mismatch between what theaters would like to show and what they can show.

Like the Regent, most of Pittsburgh's theaters are looking to keep up with the demands of change, both financially and technologically. Still, this latest technological shift marks another plot twist in a lengthy struggle by both independents and chains to keep movies running on the big screen.

For some smaller venues, "the digital conversion is maybe the last straw," said Kathryn Spitz Cohan, executive director of JFilm, the Pittsburgh Film Forum, which operates the annual Jewish film festival and offers year-round programming.

But the switch to digital is a challenge that Hollywood studios are embracing.

Digital films -- which arrive at theaters essentially in hardware form -- are cheaper for studios to produce and distributors to ship than 35 mm film, which has been in use for over 100 years, according to Gary Kaboly, director of exhibition at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. And unlike 35 mm film, digital "film" does not scratch or rip over time.

Some studios are expected to cease 35 mm delivery altogether as soon as next year. Bill Mead, the owner and publisher of DCinemaToday, a website that aggregates news about digital technology, estimates that about 75 percent of screens worldwide have been converted to digital.

Digital projectors cost between $50,000 to $100,000 per screen, according to Mr. Kaboly. And there are often accompanying costs, such as updating sound equipment. "That cost falls on the exhibitor, the movie theater," he said.

For many small theaters, that is not exactly chump change.

At Penn Hills Cinemas LLC, installing digital projectors with 3-D capability in the independent theater's four screens would cost $320,000.

"We don't see $320,000 in a year some years, let alone profit $320,000 ever," said Paul Looker, who is a managing member at Penn Hills.

Business at Penn Hills is up 40 percent over last year, largely because of Mr. Looker's efforts to cut costs and update the theater, which shows big-budget, first-run movies such as "Total Recall" and "The Bourne Legacy." Even still, the cost of digital may be prohibitive.

"We don't know if we're even going to be able to pay for it," he said. Even if the theater cannot afford to convert all four screens to digital, Mr. Looker hopes to install two projectors by the year's end.

There are a few options for financing the switch to digital: theaters can pay for the technology themselves, through bank loans or personal investments. Some independent theaters are holding fundraisers. Pittsburgh Filmmakers even received a grant from the Heinz Endowments.

One alternative is called a virtual print fee, essentially a leasing program between studios and theaters. Studios pay to show their films at theaters, thereby helping to defray the cost of the digital projector. That differs from the traditional system used with 35 mm film, in which distributors would temporarily "loan" movies to theaters, taking a cut from the box office returns.

But some theaters are hesitant to be beholden to the rules of the Hollywood studios, as the virtual print fee programs have specifications on when films can be shown, depending on who pays the fee.

"It's not good for communities to have these studios out in LA saying what can and cannot be shown in Pittsburgh," Ms. Spitz Cohan said.

Mr. Looker echoed her concerns. Penn Hills Cinemas is not considering the virtual print fee program, and he said owning the digital equipment will allow him to sell it should the theater have to close.

Rick Glaus, who manages the four-screen Dependable Drive In in Moon, chose to use bank loans and personal funds to pay for digital projectors, which he plans to start installing this fall.

Dependable shows first-run films, such as "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days" and "The Dark Knight Rises," on massive screens juxtaposed by rows of sound boxes. Because the drive-in operates three days per week during cold months, many studios would be unwilling to pay a fee for a reduced numbers of screenings, he said.

But Rick Stern, the owner of The Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill, elected to use the virtual print fee to install a Sony digital projector, and so far he likes the arrangement.

"It's really been a pretty simple process," he said. Mr. Stern debuted The Manor's new technology in May alongside other amenities, including a new bar. The Manor shows first-run and art films, from "Hope Springs" to "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

In a competitive market, he acknowledges that the fee might be a handicap in booking smaller films. "If a film company doesn't want to pay a [fee], they don't have to. They can go to my competitor," he said, though he expects his content to change only slightly, if at all.

While the growing pains have been frustrating for some, many film buffs believe digital will ultimately be a good thing.

"I think it's going to be so much better. It's a win for everybody," Mr. Glaus said.

Unlike 35 mm film, digital movies do not have a shutter, which is visible at outdoor theaters. As a result, digital picture quality will be better than 35 mm film at Dependable, he said.

Mr. Glaus will also be able to regain access to classic drive-in gimmicks in digital format, such as the dancing hot dog often shown between features.

Digital projectors are also easier to operate, since they do not require an employee to work the film from a booth.

Additionally, many classic films will become digitally restored, removing the scratches typical of 35 mm and improving color and sharpness. "Some of these films are going to look brilliant," Mr. Kaboly said.

But lesser-known, older films originally produced in 35 mm may fall by the wayside. As their film deteriorates over time, they may not be reproduced in digital format.

There are other concerns. The Jewish Film Festival might not be able to afford the virtual print fee necessary to present films at certain theaters, an issue that is sure to surface at film festivals across the country, Ms. Spitz Cohan said.

And the formats in which the festival receives films and the technology supported by local theaters do not always align. As a result, she may have to reduce the length of the 18-day festival in future years.

"We're all dressed up. We don't know where to go," she said.

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Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969.


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