Few plot twists sound more cruel or ominous for small, independent cinemas than the death of film.
Hollywood’s decision to abandon the grainy flicker of celluloid for the computerized clarity of digital images is inflicting steep costs on art houses and drive-ins across the country, many already barely scraping by thanks to home cinema and the Internet.
By the end of the year, movie studios say they will stop making the 35 millimeter prints that motion pictures have been shown on for a century, forcing theaters to invest in new digital projectors or go dark.
In New England, small theaters without the revenue to buy new digital systems, which can cost upwards of $100,000, are turning to their customers and Internet fundraising for help.
Following in the footsteps of the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport, Cable Car Cinema in Providence launched a successful online fundraising campaign on the website Kickstarter.com to buy a new projector.
Needing $48,500 for the conversion, by the end of March 681 Cable Car supporters had come through with $54,581.
“For us it would have been cost-prohibitive,” said Cable Car co-owner Daniel Julius Kamil about the prospect of switching to digital without donations. “We are tapped out from the renovation we did in 2010 and our own finances are deep in here.”
Kamil’s wife and theater co-owner, Emily Steffian, said the campaign also served as a kind of referendum on the business’ importance to the community.
“If they care we will find out and if not we will find that out too,” Steffian said before the campaign was completed.
The move away from film toward digital has been in the works for years and affects most theaters around the world.
From the movie studios’ perspective, the switch is difficult to argue with.
Instead of having hundreds of physical prints of each film developed, at a cost of several thousand dollars each, then shipped in canisters to theaters around the world, digital movies are uploaded and sent to theaters on a computer hard drive.
Kamil said last year a Massachusetts company called FilmTrans that had delivered prints to theaters throughout the region abruptly folded when it became clear they had no future in the digital transition.