Will the death of film bring down independent cinemas like Atlanta's Plaza Theatre?

As digital takes over, 35mm film fades to black

When people say "Film is dying," they don't mean that the big-screen art form is headed for the trashcan — the release of Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill notwithstanding.

Instead, the motion picture industry is abandoning the photography and projection of its stories on 35mm celluloid in order to save money. Major camera companies such as Panavision aren't even making film cameras any more, since filmmakers can shoot, edit, transport, and exhibit films entirely on digital equipment at a fraction of the cost of striking and shipping film prints.

While the big corporate movie chains can afford to go all-digital, as Regal Atlantic Station 16 did in early November, for instance, the death of film threatens the lives of small, independent cinemas unless they can adapt.

On Nov. 15, Jonathan and Gayle Rej, owners of the historic repertory house the Plaza Theatre in Poncey-Highland, sent out a mass email announcing their search for new ownership. The Plaza splits its business about 50/50 between first-run movies and special screenings such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Silver Scream Spookshow. The fact that vintage prints are becoming increasingly unavailable and new movies never see life on celluloid complicates the viability of the Plaza, which currently operates as a nonprofit.

As the press release announced, "With film studios such as Warner Brothers and Twentieth Century Fox no longer booking 35mm repertory film prints and already destroying their film libraries, soon there literally won't be film to run through the Plaza's projectors. The Rejs are seeking a party or parties: a college, museum, TV network, historical society or another entity, to take over the Plaza Theatre and make the necessary investments to maintain Atlanta's oldest cinema."

In interviews, Rej hastens to add that the Plaza isn't closing, and that he's turned down past opportunities to cash out and sell the cinema. Rej explains, "I'm just looking to the future, and we'll need some help sooner rather than later. Our main thing is to see the Plaza stay open. After five years, we've done everything we can with our level of resources." A digital upgrade would cost $30,000-$40,000 that the Plaza doesn't have.

Rej realized that film was fading out faster than he ever expected when he contacted Warner Bros. to book a print of Stanley Kubrick's horror classic The Shining for December's Splatter Cinema screening.

"They told me, 'OK, but that's the last one,'" Rej recalls. "They're not going to book The Shining on film in repertory anymore. Our screenings next month will potentially be the last time anyone will see The Shining on film. That's crazy."

Georgia State University's Cinefest has digital and 35mm projection to screen both old and new movies, but can't always get the prints it wants — and not just for old, obscure foreign fare, either. Manager Brandon English says, "We wanted to get Gremlins and Die Hard as Christmas movies, as well as Carrie and the original Halloween. Everybody's saying, 'It's on DVD and Blu-Ray! Why do you need a print?' It kind of sucks."

Kenny Blank, executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which presented 60 films at multiple theaters across the city this year, says that most of the event's venues will be all-digital by the time of February's festival. "For many foreign, indie, and documentary filmmakers we are working with, the conversion to a digital format is still cost prohibitive," says Blank. "Long-term, the move to digital will benefit film festivals by ensuring consistent exhibition quality and reducing the costs of equipment rental and shipping heavy 35mm prints. During this period of transition, it's a bit of a logistical jigsaw," he concedes.

The Starlight Six Drive-In's upgrade is still in progress, but manager Jim Stacy says the outdoor movie mecca will maintain 35mm projection for special events like Drive Invasion.

Andy Ditzler, who curates the local Film Love series of historical art films, including Andy Warhol's "Kiss" on Dec. 9, believes that film as a vehicle for art and entertainment will never entirely go away. "There's a chance that it will be like vinyl records — refusing to go away despite the convenience of digital formats, because of the many people who aren't ready to give up the tactile pleasures of analog." The scratches and cigarette burns of film prints prove comparable to the hiss and pop of vinyl records as imperfections that arguably enhance the experience.

Rej finds film's future to be less certain than that. "What if someone destroyed all the records, and said you could only listen to CDs now?" he asks. He hasn't planned the Plaza's next step if a buyer doesn't come forward, but says, "I'm sure we could limp along after everything went completely digital. There are some private collections. As long as films are available, we'll still show films."

Digital projection has improved to the point that the average moviegoer isn't likely to notice the subtle differences between the formats, especially when Hollywood and the electronics industry are so busy selling IMAX and 3-D screening options, not to mention the fact that more and more people are watching movies on laptops and other hand-held gadgets. Despite having online petitions and the support of critics like Roger Ebert, film lacks a high-powered lobby. (The influence-selling kind, not the popcorn-peddling kind.)

Purists prefer the quality of film. "Once we showed White Zombie with Bela Lugosi," says Rej. "I'd seen it before on DVD, but on our screen, I could see so much going on that I never knew was in the background. It was like a different movie. It's just how the film was meant to be seen."

Emory University film professor Matthew Bernstein agrees, saying, "Digital projection has yet to equal the eye-popping colors of Scorsese's Film Foundation print of The Red Shoes, which we showed two springs ago." Emory has no digital projectors, and Bernstein says the death of film has partially inspired his colleague Karla Oeler to program a tribute to great cinematographers for spring 2012.

Seeing a movie like Gremlins via digital as opposed to film hardly seems like a deathblow to the art form. The shelving of a film like The Shining comes as a shock. Director Stanley Kubrick was one of the great artists of screen composition, and The Shining broke creative ground with its Steadicam shots of the young boy riding his Big Wheel through the haunted corridors of the Overlook Hotel.

Instead of the vinyl vs. CD comparison, it's more like seeing a proficient reproduction of a great painting, while the timeless original canvas gets consigned to that giant, dusty warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark.