News Column

Fade to Black: A few local theaters among last to part with century-old 35-mm film

November 17, 2013


Nov. 17--The projectionist behind the first movie shown in the Indiana Theatre nearly 92 years ago would likely feel right at home in that same booth today.

The technology of 35-millimeter film remains virtually unchanged since the Indiana's massive screen first lit up with the silent picture, "Cappy Ricks." It's still 34.98 millimeters (or 1.377 inches) wide, four perforations per frame per side, and 16 frames per foot, according to standards adopted in 1909 by the International Cinematographers Guild.

"Cappy Ricks" came to theaters such as the Indiana in six reels, according to the International Movie Data Base, keeping the projectionist hopping, feeding the segments through the projector, and rewinding it all for the next showing. That flick played on the Indiana's opening night, Jan. 28, 1922. Except for the absence of sound, its delivery to an audience would be virtually identical in 2013. A few innovations in spooling the film eventually eliminated the need for an ever-present projectionist, but the 35mm film endured through the first decade of the 21st century.

Few technologies last, largely intact, for 100 years.

"Some people are shocked that it's still being used," said Brent Barnhart, who owns the Paris Theater in that Illinois town. His venue, which opened as the Lincoln Theatre in 1924, continues to use 35mm film projection.

"As old as [the 35mm format] is, there wasn't really a need for change," Barnhart added. "It's brilliant technology."

Change has come, though, after more than a century.

The Paris Theater, The Indiana and Meadows theaters in Terre Haute, and the Walnut Theater in Brazil are among just 9 percent of American cinema houses not yet converted to digital projection systems.

All are preparing for the transition. The push toward digital by the movie-making studios dates back to 1999, when George Lucas wanted to release the Star Wars on digital, even though just 100 U.S. theaters possessed the capability, Patrick Corcoran, chief communications officer for the National Association of Theater Owners, said by telephone from their offices in North Hollywood, Calif. The shift from 35mm to digital grew gradually before slowing as the recession hit. The pace has quickened since 2009.

"In just the last four years, there's just been a rapid transition going on," Corcoran said.

Adapting is necessary

The change favors the studios, whose cost to print and ship a film is about $1,500, Corcoran said. By contrast, a digital version of a movie is captured on a hard drive about the size of a book, built and shipped for around $100.

Meanwhile, theaters pay an average of $70,000 per screen to acquire the digital projection and sound equipment needed to use those hard drives. The Theater Owners association negotiated with studios to help 70 percent of theaters with the expensive adaptation, and secured assurances the basic digital-projector technology would remain the same to preserve a theater's investment.

Small, independent movie houses, though, must buy new equipment on their own. Barnhart will convert the Paris Theater and its two screens to digital by late January. The cost will be around $125,000. "It's actually going to cost more than it cost me to buy this place," Barnhart said, standing inside the projection booth, up a flight of stairs from the lobby, carpeted and lit by the theater's concession stand.

Barnhart, a 35-year-old Terre Hautean, bought the Paris Theater in 2011 after AMC -- the nation's second-largest cinema chain -- closed it. Barnhart got his first cinema job nearly 20 years earlier at theaters near Honey Creek Mall. "I loved it immediately," he said, and always wanted to own his own theater. That ambition came true when he became co-owner of the Meadows Theater, a role he still holds.

Converting any theater to digital is often one of the largest investments made by an owner.

"Yeah, pretty much," Corcoran said, "and at this point, it's pretty much necessary to stay in the business." As of Nov. 1, about 91 percent had switched. Of the nation's 40,455 movie screens, 36,455 have been converted, and the rate has reached 300 per month. Among theaters, 5,700 are digital, with about 1,200 locations still using film. Some holdouts are the eclectic "art houses," endeared to the 35mm process. Some are waiting. A few hundred will sell or close, Corcoran said.

To prepare a 35mm film for showing, a theater must splice together five or six reels of the movie, as well as insert the previews at the beginning. Some studios have stopped providing 35mm versions of those coming attractions. "It's their way of saying, 'We're getting out of the [35mm] film business, and you probably should, too,'" Barnhart said.

The historic Indiana Theatre will keep a toe in the 35mm water, yet take the digital plunge, too. Nostalgia is a crucial niche for the ornate building, designed by master cinema architect John Eberson. Its new owner, Rob Lundstrom, plans to maintain the old-school film projection booth and equipment atop the backside of the Indiana, while installing a digital projector, with a centralized lighting and sound board, near the booth-seating area in the middle of the auditorium. Retaining the 35mm capability will allow the Indiana to conduct art-house-style classic movie events or festivals, such as the upcoming Dec. 21 holiday movie fest, featuring cartoons and "It's a Wonderful Life." Though the Indiana is branching out as an events center, it won't abandon its cinematic legacy.

That includes 35mm projection.

"It's going to be an important part of [the theater's plans]," Lundstrom said.

The addition of digital, alongside the 35mm, will give the Indiana access to the full gamut of movies. "We kind of get left behind if we don't," Lundstrom said.

Putting digital in the Indiana is an especially hefty venture, given the immensity of its screen -- the state's second-largest, next to the IMAX at Indianapolis -- hanging above the 54-foot-wide stage. Lundstrom estimates the price of a full-blown digital system at $150,000, but has found a more cost-effective option. By placing the digital projector in the middle of the auditorium, a more compact unit can be used and the picture will still cover nearly three-quarters of the screen.

And those moving images will be sharper, more high-definition than 35mm film can offer.

Goodbye to 'brain wraps'

The look and sound digital provides is "just phenomenal," Barnhart said. Near as it is to the hearts of theater purists, 35mm films shake, and show dirt and scratches as the copies -- which are called prints -- are passed from one cinema to the next. The digital hard-drive versions are "just perfect, crystal-clear, sharp," Barnhart said. "Exactly what the filmmakers wanted you to see and hear."

It also eliminates the occasional glitches posed by 35mm projection, such as "brain wraps." Those occur when a fully spliced film snags in the center of one of the wagon-wheel-sized platters. On a "tree" of platters, the film feeds from one platter across the room to the projector and then is routed back to another rewinding platter. A brain wrap threatens the process and forces the operator to frantically unclog the film, and even re-splice it, while the show goes on.

"I've thrown film on the floor, and people out there [in the auditorium] have no idea. I'm cutting it, splicing it, just to keep it going," Barnhart said, chuckling.

In a worst-case scenario for a 35mm theater, the projector cogs tear at the film's perforations, the frame freezes, and the audience watches it burn through.

While Barnhart loves the history behind the old era, he appreciates the positives of the new. The transition to digital "has forced a lot of theaters to close and forced a lot of theaters to sell," he said, "but for those who've chosen to stay, it's given them a lot more flexibility."

Paris goes digital in January, Lundstrom will add it to The Indiana by next month, and the Meadows is still mulling the change, Barnhart said. At Brazil's Walnut Theatre, owners Mark and Gayla Thiemann expect to convert within a year. Their cozy, 696-seat venue, with one 33-foot-wide screen, can be fit with a smaller digital projector for about $42,000, Mark Thiemann said. It would replace a 1948-vintage 35mm projector.

"It still has a nice picture," Thiemann said of the 65-year-old machine. "Parts are pretty hard to come by."

It's also harder for the Walnut to find 35mm theaters nearby, able to participate in exchanging films after one venue completes a run.

Digital's upside, Thiemann said, is "a cleaner presentation." Its longevity is yet to be seen.

"I'm hoping this [new digital equipment] lasts me 20 years, as big as this investment is," Thiemann said.

He anticipates the nationwide digital conversion to be complete within a year. Corcoran, at the National Association of Theater Owners, won't predict the date of the last 35mm theater showing in America, but said, "It's coming soon."

To a theater new you.

Terre Haute Tribune-Star columnist Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or


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