Reflections on the fate of the independent exhibitor

posted by Michael Zoldessy on September 10, 2009 at 7:49 am

This piece from Digital Cinema Report looks at how the digital transition is affecting the small-town independent theater operator.

As the industry undergoes the most transformative revolution since the talkies, film perforations give way to binary digits. A relatively simple and competent 100-year-old technology surrenders to expensive computerized projection. There are clear benefits, to be sure, but exhibitors have been conflicted. Nowhere is the conflict more pronounced than among the small-town, few-screen operators who have anchored the movie industry in countless communities across North America. Independent theatre operators have been performing an essential and valuable service for the movie industry for generations, and they’ve been doing fine. The margins may not have been great, but these are people with a passion for showing movies, creating a culture of movie consumption, and becoming cultural bastions in their communities. That has been reward enough.

Comments (34)

markp on September 10, 2009 at 8:26 am

Enough said. This digital crap is going to put every last one of them out of business. Then we’ll be stuck with a country full of American Mutilation Cinemas, a.k.a. AMC.

JodarMovieFan on September 10, 2009 at 8:41 am


I thought the studios were to help subisize the digital transitions so that the smaller independents have some help with the costs?

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on September 10, 2009 at 9:11 am

I have independent theaters and i am not worried about this at all.THIS IS YEARS AND YEARS AWAY. By then prices will be way down on equipment. It is already coming down. My city has 95 screen all majors with 12 digital screens . Most installed this year. There is no rush other than for each theater to have a 3d screen. The sky is not falling!

markp on September 10, 2009 at 9:52 am

I STILL say there’s nothing wrong with 35MM, or better yet, 70MM.

Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson on September 10, 2009 at 10:46 am

I agree that is is going to take a while for the film industry as a whole to switch to digital, the problem is going to be that once the majors (Regal AMC etc.) switch over and are 100% digital and they control the majority of the screens in the US the availability of 35MM prints is going to shrink. 35MM will be around but the distributors who now make 1500 to 3000 prints of a major release are going to reduce that number way down. So anyone who plays a first run film in 35MM may have to wait for a print. This has already been stated as to what is going to happen by the major distributors themselves as digital is way cheaper to produce and ship. And they are the ones who will reap the biggest benifit from digital. So anyone who uses 35MM, myself included, may find a time in the near future when we can still get movies but how soon is going to depend on the perticular market we are in and how popular the film is and how many prints were struck by the distributor

CinemarkFan on September 10, 2009 at 10:49 am

Although a complete digital takeover won’t happen for many many years, we have to do what we can to save independents in our respective communites. See, studios today only think about the big chains like AMC, Regal etc… They forget about the ones who can’t spend a billion dollars on systems that will most likely have to be upgraded to something else in a few years.

But until we cross that bridge, keep those 35mm prints looking pristine folks. And fight for a new 70mm production, even when people say “it’s never gonna happen”.

quasimodo on September 10, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Ron Carlson is absolutely right. I operate a first run single-screen theatre in a small town and am experiencing ever greater difficulty getting films on the break. More often than not, I’m being locked out of mainstream releases, with distributors claiming that 2600-3000 prints is not wide enough anymore. Two-week runs are also becoming increasingly rare with many distributors demanding three weeks or more while a 60% – 70% drop per week is not uncommon in a small (and depressed) market.

I am situated about sixteen miles from a digital 10 that plays everything. While I’m writing letters to the distributors pleading for product on the break, my patrons are leaving town to see the movies they want. This situatation is exacerbated by the whole 3D issue which has siphoned off the business for the once lucrative family product.

As a multiple award-winning exhibitor of twenty-years I’ve championed the historic and small town theatres and fought for their preservation and operation. They are an important part of our national heritage and vital to the communities they serve. I’m told frequently that people prefer my theatre to any other. But we live or die according to product, and if we can’t get it, we’ve lost the battle. From my perspective the sky is indeed falling.

Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson on September 10, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Quasimodo hit the nail on the head, this is what I’ve been experiencing for some time. My theatre is running art, independent, foreign films and we have to wait behind Landmark for virtually all our films. They are the biggest exhibitor for this kind of product in the nation and they have an exclusive lock on everything, so I wait, and as the # of prints reduce I can see the wait getting longer all the time. Digital is only going to make things worse. I firmly believe that the small independent theatre’s are the life blood of many smaller markets but the distributors only see $$$$ and the large chains can play films longer even after the audience has died off. My patrons also say they “love my theatre” but they will go elsewhere to see a movie instead of waiting until I can get a print.

As far as 70MM is concerned I see no return to large format productions. A good 70MM movie is usually filmed in 65MM and then blown up to 70. This gives you a picture that is virtually unsurpassed in visual quality. But this is very expensive and with the cost to make a movie these days the added expence to drag out the large format cameras is prohibitive. Also how many theatre’s have the ability to play 70MM? In the old days people would wait, or go to a major city for a Roadshow Presentation but today with saturation releasing I just don’t see it happening.

Picture quality will be another way the distributors will push Digital as they claim that you get the best picture without expensive large format filming and print production that can only be played at a very limited # of theatre’s.

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on September 10, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Ron Carson I have to disagree with a few points . I do have a 3 screen art theater so I am in the loop. My first suggestion is don’t book the theater yourself.(if you are) There is virtually no art product push in digital so print issues can not be blamed on that. (Hence the topic) There are times when I wait for a print (sony classics is the worst) but there is always plenty of other product to play. We have some of the best art grosses in the country ,but we still wait till all the “major” cities are done. This is how it has been for years. No change of late. In any bsns model it comes down to the dollars. The main concern for the indi market is the ever shrinking amount of studios.


Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on September 10, 2009 at 10:06 pm

I recently did a study of all screens in my ‘AREA’ that have gone digital. The study took all screens in the complex & compared to last years numbers(when they were not digital)I then took all the theaters that had no digital at all and compared. There was No difference in the % between 35 mm vs digital. So if all the theaters were up 5 % this summer the digital screens were the same 5% in 1 complex the % was lower since the digital was installed. There was one exception 3d . This is the only area were theaters with digital saw an increase over 35 mm theaters. THATS IT JUST 3D. There were 81 screens in my survey.

Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson on September 11, 2009 at 4:46 pm

First I do not book for myself I use a booking agency who books for our entire circuit, 27 screens, and while there is no push at this time for digital in the art market I do believe that at some point this is going to become an issue. Also the increase in revenue is with distributor cost not theater revenue. Most theaters would have been perfectly happy to stay with film but the distributors are the ones who are going to make a killing and they are pushing the industry forward on digital. And now that the largest circuits have inked deals to convert the big push is turning to the medium sized exhibiters, and once those agree to switch then it will trickle down to smaller operaters. This may take a few years to accomplish but that is the goal of the film distribution companys.

This is really no different than the switch from silent to sound. Everyone said sound film was a fad and it would never last. But the studios prduced sound movies and they were the largest theater owners so they wired for sound and pulled in the audience. Next the medium sized exhibitors followed suit and so on down to the smallest theater owner. If you didn’t convert you closed. Today the format is again changing and the money to convert is about the same as the convertion from silent to sound when you factor in what a dollar was worth in 1927 vs today with inflation. The same can be said when cinemascope came along in 1953 with stereophonic sound. Again a format change and you had to convert or not show some of the most popular films. This is a cyclical thing, technology changes and we must adapt, or fade to black. Everyone is so enamored with 35MM film but this is in use because it was the only practicle way to record images and play them back for the last 100 years or so, but there’s nothing wrong with moving forward. Digital is here to stay and eventurally everyone is going to have to switch. It may take a decade to accomplish but I believe it can not be avoided.

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on September 11, 2009 at 8:21 pm

I agree with most of what you say. . Other than the cost I would say goodbye to film in a heart beat. This notion that 35 mm or die drives me crazy. Digital still has a way to go in its own technology but when its perfect i will change.. Those who are stuck in the past will be the ones left behind.

Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson on September 11, 2009 at 10:40 pm

I agree with all of that.

CinemarkFan on September 12, 2009 at 12:11 am

“Digital still has a way to go in its own technology”

A loooooonnnnnggggg way at that. The current digital systems projecting movies are good, but it sure as hell ain’t like the last 15 minutes of “The International”, which were shot in 65mm. Now keep in mind, I saw that projected in 35mm. Seeing those minutes made me believe in what film could do if done right. And could you imagine what it would’ve looked like if it were projected in its 65mm origination? But its all about the bottom-line dollar to these greedy/stingy studio knuckleheads. And in some small way, we play a part in what they do.

Think about it. The art of theatrical presentation is pretty much ——ed. They don’t care, because we, the people who spend money don’t care. And when we don’t like what they do in the theaters, we wait for DVD, and inadvertently shrink the window of theatrical release and home video. A decade ago, they came with 2k digital, and we bought it. They started building multiplexes with so-called main auditoriums with top-down masking for 2.35 films, and we bought that. Then comes ticket prices so expensive, one will have spent part of a gas bill after leaving. We visit these sites and talk about the good ‘ol days of cinema and about how much better it was back in the day, yet we do nothing to help bring the art of showmanship to THIS day.

As a 19 year old male with plans to own a chain of movie theaters, I like the idea of digital projection. And when it’s really perfected, I will welcome it with open arms. But the digital presentations I’ve seen pale in comparison to those last minutes of “International” or even better, the IMAX segments in “TDK”. Those are the kind of images that digital won’t be topping for years. Even with a perfect digital in the future, why should digital become the sole format for theatrical presentation? Why couldn’t digital become the new 35mm, with larger film formats used for selected films? Oh yeah, we’ve got to just “accept the fact that film and large format film is a dinosaur and move on”. Those are the words those honchos love to hear. Well, they’re not going to hear it from me. I won’t accede to that way of thinking.

As long as digital is not 100% perfect, we should be thinking of ways film could stand side-by side with digital. This means helping the independent filmmaker shoot productions in old fashioned super 16, or even better, the glorious and beautiful Panavision Anamorphic. And if we’ve got millions of dollars, rent ‘em an Arri 765, which is like the window to the world, through the lens of a camera.

We should also take the young children to see 70mm revivals. And if there’s any projectionists with children, let them feel the strip of film in their hands. Let them know what kind of magic they’re holding.

And if anybody wants a new 65mm production (or just the art of showmanship in general), its very simple, fight for it. I will be doing my part, but one person is one person. A whole group on the other hand, is something else. When “Samsara” gets a release date, hammer the studios about releasing a 70mm print in a selected theater. Find ways to promote the format to audiences. If it does well, then perhaps a filmmaker like Chris Nolan could produce another production for the format.

I am going to conclude my rant, and I will leave everyone with some links.

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on September 12, 2009 at 9:12 am

As a 19 year old that will have theaters someday I can tell you you will need to change your thinking.
70 mm is as dead as Michael Jackson. The fact that you wont say it is irrespective of reality. You will eventually not have a choice it will be digital or nothing. This will be 10 to 15 years away but at 19 you will see the change to 100% digital. Could there be a half a dozen theaters left that do old films in 35 mm maybe. But 1st run no way.

Showmanship on the other hand can be achieved by many different ways and does not require film . I started in the bsns when I was 15 years old and Iam now 44. I have been an usher ,ast mgr,mgr ,district mgr,booker, projectionist and now theater owner. Nostalgia is great when it comes to CINEMA TREASURES (buildings) but for me film 35 mm is a pain in the ass that should have gone years ago.

IanJudge on September 12, 2009 at 5:22 pm

I’ll take a physical, electro-mechanical pain in the ass that my trained projectionist can fix 9.9 times out of ten over computer technology that is obsolete nearly as soon as you install it any day of the week. I find film a very easy format to work with. To each his own, though.

CinemarkFan, I agree with your sentiments. We’re just installing 70mm in one of my theaters so that we have at least one house that can play anything. I think that certain markets will still support this programming on a very limited basis, like a museum piece, or the way many theaters (one of mine included) still run silent with live accompaniment on occasion. However mainstream multiplexes will alas be non-film at some point. I think that is farther down the road than the studios and MPAA predict, but the big boys are all on board, and they’ll push it through.

Jon Lidolt
Jon Lidolt on September 12, 2009 at 5:55 pm

My local, all-digital movie complex (they can also screen 35mm in a few of the auditoriums) is equipped with Sony 4K projectors, and the images on the screens are a wonder to behold. There’s perfect focus from edge to edge and top to bottom, there’s no image bounce or weave, no dust, no scratches and no splices, and it never pops out of focus. As a moviegoer it’s a real treat. Oh yes, one last thing: the films always end up on the screen in the correct aspect ratio.

This cinema is currently being used as a screening venue by the Toronto International Film Festival, and I’ve heard nothing but positive comments from friends about the high quality of the digital images they’ve been viewing.

CinemarkFan on September 12, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Tell me Ian, what’s the name of the theater that’s getting 70mm? I can mark that down in my list.

I do think digital is the future, and its better than 35mm in some cases. But until there’s a digital equivalent to 70mm, complete with the 2.20: 1 aspect ratio and crystal clear photography, I still stand by the notion that we should be FIGHTING for the kind of movie that would be shot in the large format 65mm, and have select market 70mm or Super Dimension 70 prints. Of course, the rest would be 4k digital.

Ron Fricke’s upcoming sequel to “Baraka” titled “Samsara” is a start. But because of its subject matter, it may not do well even with a select market release. Now if Christopher Nolan does indeed shoot an upcoming project in 65mm, then we should put it out there that even with digital screens, we can run the movie the way it was meant to be seen.

Anyway, I won’t worry about the future right now. I’m focused on getting this theater reopened. Hopefully I’ll achieve that. But yeah, if there’s ever a digital format like 70mm, then lets welcome it with hugs. But until that time, lets fight for the underdog.

PS: I wish there was something like this here in Chicago

Jon Lidolt
Jon Lidolt on September 13, 2009 at 6:34 am

I too like the idea of 70mm prints being produced for special attractions. But with one caveat: only if they’ve been shot in a large format photographic process to begin with. No blowups please. However, there is a problem: unless theatres are equipped with huge, deeply curved screens (think Cinerama, Todd-AO and Dimension 150) there’s not much point. To the average moviegoer a 70mm movie projected onto a standard size flat screen doesn’t mean much to them, it’s only a bit sharper and not a big deal. I’m old enough to remember seeing some of the original Todd-AO 70mm prints projected onto a huge 120ยบ curved screen. What a treat! And what about digital Imax? What a laugh – it’s not even a pale imitation.

markp on September 13, 2009 at 8:04 am

My father had a saying years ago before he passed on to that giant movie palace in the sky…“what goes around, comes around”. Imax is killing itself with dietmax, this whole digital thing to me, and many others is going to be a passing fancy, and I still believe film will live on in many formats. What we need are people to build theatres like Jon Lidoit mentions above. Huge curved screens. Something that you wont find in your local AMC or Regal.

MPol on September 13, 2009 at 9:30 am

Although I admittedly know little to nothing about the movie business, I think you’re probably right about that, movie534.

MPol on September 13, 2009 at 9:31 am

Hey CinemarkFan!

I wish there was something like this:


here in Boston.

byrdone on September 13, 2009 at 7:16 pm

If you think digital is a looooooong way off you’d better wake up and smell the pixels, just look around, yeah, 3D. It’s just the first necessary step because it is what film 3D wasn’t—watchable without headaches, nausea, eyestrain. You who said just 12 of 95 screens in your area are digital, that’s 12% and next year there will be another 7 or 8 and the following year 10 or 12. Waiting for a new 70mm release? Why would any studio do it? There are more digital screens than 70mm, the difference is every year there are fewer 70’s and more digital, ain’t going to happen. Quit whining and start putting money aside to make the change.

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on September 13, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Those who like the big screen come see our curved 74 ft wide screen in Charleston SC …..Yes its a single screen…

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on September 13, 2009 at 7:33 pm


IanJudge on September 13, 2009 at 9:34 pm

I find digital 3-D to have all of the “headaches, nausea, eyestrain” that regular 3-D has. And nobody is whining here – it’s called a discussion.

CinemarkFan on September 14, 2009 at 12:22 am

I second that Ian. I saw “Beowulf” in Real-D, and I started getting eyestrains after the first 30 minutes or so. I will say this though, it looks better than the old 3-D with the red/blue cardboard glasses.

Now why would a studio do a new 70mm release? To keep people in the theaters. Once 3-D and digital become commonplace, and the 3-D systems become avalible to Blu-ray, then what? What happens when there’s another box office slump that’s worse than the infamous 19 week drought of 2005? Keep in mind that 100% “pristine” digital will only make piracy easier. If that’s the case, then people who buy pirated movies can pretty much say goodbye to the old camcorded crap of the past. For $5 on the street, one could buy the lastest Michael Bay fluff, and it would have real DVD quality. Why? Because smart hackers get into hardrives the way a hungry person gets into McDonalds. What will save Hollywood the way it was saved from TV in the 50s?

If they have a teaspoon of sense, then they would go to large format film (for the few selected productions of course). In today’s world where an average summer film costs 200+ million, 65mm originated material only makes sense. Think about it, 200 million is a gamble for something that might be on the street on release date. And “Real-D” will be on Blu-ray in few months. So you’ve gotta give people what they can’t get at home; a big bright sharp image on a BIGWIDESCREEN.

IMAX had a great thing going until they whored themselves out in favor of two 2k projectors and smaller screens at AMC locations. Now they’ve become an example of corporate greed, and has created LIEMAX at the chain locations.

Another thing these big chains (cough AMC, Regal cough) need to stop doing, building 14-20 screeners all with top-down masking and seat capacities of 70-350. And instead of spending all these millions on those LIEMAX screens, they could be spending money on building screens like this:
View link

Of course, that would require a corporation to you know, care about the moviegoing experience rather than just $$$$. When I eventually build theaters, you can best bet that most, of not all of them will feature a premiere auditorium with a screen size that’s 60-80ft wide.

I’ll leave some more interesting links here:
View link
View link
View link

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on September 14, 2009 at 8:33 am

There will never be a 70 mm movie made again..Just wont happen.Not saying its correct but facts are facts.

Imax has ruined there brand with mini max …….

CinemarkFan on September 14, 2009 at 9:36 am

I think that any 70mm production won’t be bought up by a studio exec. However, any kind of return to 70mm would have to be by a director with the power to do what he/she wants.

I don’t think it will return anytime soon though. Once hollywood ***k themselves over with the digital thing….

Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson on September 14, 2009 at 6:18 pm

I agree with most of what’s been said here with reguard to screen size and maskings. Screens should be as large as possible for the size of the market they are being built in and maskings should open and close from the sides as there is supposed to be a difference in picture width between flat and scope. Nothing drives me crazier that watching a flat movie and then seeing a scope presentation and they look like the same aspect ratio. With top down maskings the scope picture is actually smaller that flat. This is just cheap lazy theater owners who can’t be bothered to do it right.
I do believe that digital is here to stay and “if” the digital equipment can be ordered with specially ground lenses I see no reason why equipment can’t be bought that will reproduce the image clearity and size of the large curved screens thereby reproducing the image of 70MM. In the best large format houses of the past the lens’s were specially ground to match the curve and dimentions of the screen installed in those houses. It was expensive then and it’s going to be expensive now but if the theater owner cares about the presentaion they will pony up.

byrdone on September 15, 2009 at 5:12 pm

I agree, Ron, fixed height screens are the correct way to do it. Do any of your 27 screens have 70mm capability? Would you ante up the bucks to play 70mm if one were released? Not unless you’re stupid. It would take a 6 or 8 K digital projector to equal the potential resolution of a 5 perf 70mm originated on 65 or 70mm film, those don’t exist in today’s technology.

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on September 15, 2009 at 7:13 pm

I just put in a high gain 1.8 screen …74 ft and it cost $20,000.00

CinemarkFan on September 15, 2009 at 7:19 pm

I’m glad you mentioned the resolution Xenon. I read somewhere that shooting in 35mm and going directly to print could have a resolution up to 8k. 70mm resolution on the other hand, might be upwards of 10/12k if that comment on 35 is true.

In the very very distant future when I have grey hair and grandkids, there just might be an 8k projector to equal 70mm quality, but it should retain the 2.20: 1 aspect ratio.

Giles on October 21, 2009 at 5:33 pm

honestly I don’t see the independent studios actually releasing “digital” films, it’s still all 35mm, why upgrade to digital when product isn’t there? Foreign and indie films still get released on film, the Landmark Theatre chain is smart – they might install one digital projector system, but to go all digital is, and wont happen when not all are onboard for the ‘digital conversion’ that the industry so thinks and wants the distributors/theatres wants it to believe.

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