This post was produced as part of the UW Comm Department’s undergraduate Entrepreneurial Journalism course.
By Megan Manning
Hollywood has declared 35–millimeter film officially dead.
We should have seen this coming. Production companies and movie studios the world over have been attempting to resuscitate the old–fashioned medium for a while now, but the inevitable has finally happened. Six of the largest film studios in the business (Warner Bros, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Columbia Pictures, Universal Studios and Twentieth Century Fox) have announced that they are switching to digital technology completely by the end of this year, a conversion process that, while saving millions in production, will almost certainly mean curtains on the centuries–old reel. The 35–millimeter has finally flat–lined.
“I honestly thought everything had been digital for a while now,” says Mattie Heider, a senior at the University of Washington. “You keep hearing about how more and more movies are going 3D. People really seem to like it. So it’s kind of surprising that the old picture–by–picture framing is still around.”
Larger movie theater conglomerates have been making the transition from mechanical to digital operating systems for several years now, their decision powered by public demand for a superior movie experience and by the growing number of production companies that have already switched. But for smaller neighborhood theaters, the conversion process has been neither hurried nor very well–received.
“To initially install a digital projector, it does cost more,” says Kari Jackson, manager for the Majestic Bay, an independently–owned movie theater in Ballard. “The bulbs are more expensive to replace too, and because they are a lot brighter than the 35–millimeter projector bulbs they tend to go out quicker.”
Removing the obsolete projectors has been a bittersweet experience for the Majestic Bay, which just recently switched to digital. With a looming old–fashioned marquee that illuminates the sidewalks in the evening and magnificent waterfall curtains in the auditoriums (the last to ever be installed in a Seattle movie theater), the Majestic Bay has managed to capture an atmosphere reminiscent of the theatrical vaudevillian period. The character of the theater was no accident; the Majestic bay has a distinguished and charming history stretching back to the early twentieth century, making it the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the country.
“When we bought the theater it had been called the Bay since 1947,” says Kenny Alhadeff, owner of the Majestic Bay. “But it was originally called the Majestic. So when we recreated it, we wanted to kind of denote that this was a different theater but still part of the same.”
The Majestic Bay management has always wanted to keep the movie–going experience traditional, which is one reason why the decision to remove the 35–millimeter reel from production has been so challenging for them. “We were very reluctant to [switch] because we are historically classical,” says Alhadeff. “I grew up with the American Theatre in the Seward Park area where I lived, and I loved my little neighborhood theater. Back then they were all single–screened. My friends and I would go with one dollar – that was 25 cents for each of us to get in, and the other 25 cents could buy us each five candies.”
Leaving behind the memory of the reel is very much like leaving behind an old friend. The 35–millimeter is a medium that has been around for decades, and its absence has left places like the Majestic Bay reeling (pun intended). But the impact is more than just emotional. Indiewire.com estimated that around 20 percent of movie theaters throughout the nation will disappear with the coming of the Digital Age, most of them non–conglomerates with no means of upgrading their equipment. The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) also reported in a 2011 statement that they expected most theaters that do not undergo the conversion process to be one or two–screen neighborhood theaters and that: “To require [them] to install expensive technology is an undue financial burden that may result in these theatres closing.”
But for the Majestic Bay, shutting down was never an option. “[The theater] is an anchor for the neighborhood, very community–oriented,” says Monique Tran, a businesswoman who maintains a small folk art gallery in a neighboring building.
“There was no choice,” adds Alhadeff.
Digital projectors are estimated to cost almost four times the amount of mechanical projectors, running at a minimum of $70,000 for each. As a smaller theater with only three running screens, the Majestic Bay has invested a near $210,000 for the installation of their new digital equipment (that doesn’t include the additional expenditure of three–dimensional movies, which require even more advanced and expensive technology).
While the transition was a necessary one, many of their audience members have yet to notice the change. “Everything looks the same to me,” says Emma Nyland, a frequent customer of the theater. “The Majestic Bay has always been one of my favorite theaters, partially because of their standards when it comes to movies. So I guess not noticing a difference is a good thing.”
There are actually many good things about the new digital equipment, tradition and expenses aside. “Change is always hard, but the reality is that everything about it long-term is positive,” says Alhadeff. “You can move the film from theater to theater with the press of a button. You can build the film with a computer screen and you don’t have to splice anything. Instead of these huge cases with this heavy film, there are little boxes. And you can show DVDs. It just opens up a lot more flexibility.”
“The wonder isn’t that it it’s occurring, but that it took so long to occur,” adds Michael Manning, personal accountant for the theater and, as luck would have it, my dear father. “Very few members of the generation graduating from college today have ever placed a vinyl record onto a turntable, as music entered the digital era before they were born. While movies in digital form haven’t been with us for quite as long as digital music, it’s been with us for 20 years and that’s a long adoption period for something that is clearly much more efficient.”
For more information on the Majestic Bay Theater, visit: www.majesticbay.com.