The del mar theater, which has adapted to digital projection over the last two years. Photos by Sal Ingram.
The Del Mar Theater, which has adapted to digital projection over the last two years. Photos by Sal Ingram.

Correction: City on a Hill Press has updated this version with two changes, one removing an error in the piece and in the other replacing a quote with another more accurate. CHP apologizes for any concern caused by these errors.

The age of the flickering celluloid filmstrip is fading.

Late in 2011, 20th Century Fox declared that by the end of 2013, it would stop making film prints for distribution to theater chains. Soon, other film studios followed their lead and in a very short amount of time, celluloid film was given an expiration date and digital cinema rapidly emerged as the standardized form for theatrical projection.

More than 80 percent of the approximately 39,500 theater screens in the United States have upgraded to digital. Because of the exorbitant financial costs of going digital, many smaller “art house” theaters with limited funding are facing a dire situation. The National Association of Theatre Owners estimated about 20 percent of all small theaters and drive-ins across the country will be forced to close their doors due to the impending standardization of digital projection.

For Santa Cruz independent theaters like the Nickelodeon affiliates — the Nick, Del Mar and Aptos theatres — the major transition from film to digital has altered the way they are conducting business.

The new computer system used for digital projection at the Del Mar Theatre.
The new computer system used for digital projection at the Del Mar Theatre.

The Big Shift

In the summer of 2010, the Nick and the Del Mar theatres began the extensive shift from film to digital. Scott Griffin, the chief operating officer at the Nick, Del Mar and Aptos Cinemas, sensed that the digitalization of film was impending.

“For years, we had heard everyone was going to go digital,” Griffin said. “But as soon as the major exhibition chains [like Regal] signed a financial agreement to go digital, everyone had to follow suit.”

Over the course of the next year and a half, the Nick and the Del Mar implemented all of their screens with digital capabilities. By December 2011, every screen between the two theaters had gone digital at the cost of $750,000.

Griffin attributes the industry-wide digital shift to the major studios’ desire to find a more cost effective way of exhibiting movies. Film prints cost approximately $1,500 per film, whereas digital files cost at most $150 — a margin that saves the studios a huge sum.

Although studios may have found a cost effective way of presenting films, theater chains have been forced to work with the more expensive digital technology.

“Logistically, it’s a lot more expensive working with digital than working with film,” Griffin said. “With digital, you have to update constantly. The software only operates in 10 year cycles, whereas with film you could have a 35mm projector which would last 30 years or more.”

Film vs. Digital

Whereas movies were once printed on large rolls of celluloid filmstrip and lugged around in metal canisters, now they are being projected through the use of a small set of convenient digital files. The files for feature films are typically stored on external hard drives called Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs).

Aesthetic differences between the two formats are slight, but noticeable. Film prints carry on them bits of dirt, scratches and the occasional spliced image. Digital is clean, brighter and delivers a sharp clarity without any of the haziness of celluloid.

“Film prints will start to run down over time,” said Marianne Lawlor, manager of the Del Mar Theater. “They’ll start to get vertical black lines, scratches, and really noticeable flaws. With digital, that possibility is never going to happen. It’s always going to look as clear and amazing as the first time you play it.”

For most theatergoers the difference between the two formats is negligible, but some celluloid enthusiasts ardently defend its qualities.

“Most people would prefer the clearest picture, and digital provides just that,” said third-year Film and Digital Media major Anthony Stratos. “But to see a film on celluloid means experiencing the movie purely. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but there’s a unique quality to celluloid.

Now that film is being projected digitally, the entire process is dependent on computer technology. Whereas film projectionists were once quite familiar with the technical qualities of celluloid projection, now they have to adjust to the many hiccups in a new computer system.

“With digital, because you’re working with computers, you’ll sometimes experience problems and have no idea what is wrong,” Lawlor said. “The transition has really been like learning a new language.”

The Nickelodeon theatre, first opened in 1969, has undergone many changes in its transition from celluloid to digital projection.
The Nickelodeon theatre, first opened in 1969, has undergone many changes in its transition from celluloid to digital projection.


After the Nick and the Del Mar made the hefty investment in digital projection, Griffin and his co-workers decided that the process of digitalization lended itself to an overhaul of the two theaters’ amenities.

“Because we’re spending all this money on digital, we decided to make some other upgrades to the theaters,” Griffin said. “The Nick was re-painted and re-networked to have more accessibility for the Internet. Every auditorium got a bigger screen and better sound. We just want to do more and take advantage of these technologies.”

One way both the Nick and the Del Mar have adapted to digital has been to implement special screenings and events using digital or Internet technology.

“When we rent out the theaters for special screenings, instead of asking the renters for a 35mm print, we can just use a DVD,” Lawlor said. “It’s much easier and more convenient for people interested in renting the space.”

Griffin said although the theaters rarely ran on-screen advertising before going digital, the switch to digital has forced them to subtly shift these business practices.

“We do have to run a little bit of on-screen advertising now,” Griffin said. “When weighing our options, we thought that ads would be the least impactful on our audience. It’s two minutes of something you don’t really have to look at that helps keep our business in a safe place.”

Dinner and a Movie

In an age dominated by Internet streaming, going to the theaters isn’t as common anymore. More than half of all homes in the U.S. currently stream T.V. shows and movies, and one-fourth of them use Netflix to access content. The Internet has quickly risen as a viable alternative to theater chains.

“If in a hypothetical future the only projected movies are super huge blockbusters, then the only way to access alternative cinema will be online,” said fourth-year Film and Digital Media major Dylan Hunter. “Little theaters like [the Nick] are what bring people out to go see that kind of content.”

Despite the rapid rise of online streaming, film lovers say there are major benefits to watching movies on the big screen.

“When I teach classes, I know students want to skip screenings and go watch stuff on a little screen, and I fight that as much as I can,” said Film and Digital Media lecturer Greg Youmans. “There are some movies that aren’t meant to be watched on a tiny screen.”

Throughout the process of adapting to digitalization, the Nickelodeon and the Del Mar have strived to retain their authenticity as a local business. The theaters serve food from Santa Cruz businesses like The Buttery and The Penny Ice Creamery, and they are on the only West Coast theater chain that serves non-GMO popcorn.

“A lot of other theaters exist because they want to sell stuff to people, but the Nick and the Del Mar exist because we just love showing movies and we think movies are important for people to watch,” Griffin said. “They spark conversations about subjects you might never have thought about before … It’s this amazing communal experience that you just don’t get if you watch a movie at home.”

Despite the Nick and the Del Mar’s many adaptations to this digital age, people may still prefer to stay in the comfort of their own home when they watch a flick. For Jahnavi Anderson however, the manager of the Nickelodeon, the communal cinematic experience continues to not only be relevant, but invaluable.

“When you go into this large dark room with the sound all around you, it’s like ducking out of reality for awhile,” she said. “It’s never just about watching a movie, it’s about the entire experience of going out and being swept away from your normal surroundings.”