Ninety years ago, movie theaters around the world were faced with meeting technological demands when “talkies” required recorded sound. And while The Artist, the Oscar-winning troubadour of the moment, makes fluffy melodrama of this transition from one era to another, independent theaters in the Depression-era 1920s and ’30s without the financial means or the will to accept studio backing to install synchronized sound equipment went dark. A similar evolution is at hand as today’s cinemas, both large and small, scramble to make their projectors compliant in a brave new world of film distribution: all digital, all the time.
Most new films are currently available in both the tried-and-true 35mm format as well as the new Digital Cinema Package (DCP). For major new releases, the former option will slowly disappear over the next five years as an iron-fisted industry demands that theaters, especially those reliant on revenue from blockbuster films, convert to digital. Upgrading the Walker Cinema, however, is far more complex than simply choosing either 35mm or DCP. The major renovations to the Cinema make it the most versatile in the region, embracing both the need for this industry-driven progression and the desire to safeguard aesthetic integrity and film history.
The Walker’s devotion to the glories of moving pictures both old and new was on full display earlier this year, following the first phase of the renovation. February opened with the sold-out premiere of Wim Wenders’ 3D film Pina on a state-of-the-art, 4K DCP projector, and the rest of the month featured screenings of rare and restored 16mm films from a series called Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000. The final phase of the cinema’s renovation—taking place in May and early June—preserves original formats with new 35mm and 16mm projectors, and includes enhanced acoustics and new, comfortable, plush red seats.
These upgrades come just ahead of the curve: theater chains have already converted to digital projection systems, but this year is a make-or-break time for independent cinemas. Reality hit home for many at last spring’s CinemaCon—an annual gathering “celebrating the moviegoing experience”—as John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told 2,000 attendees: “If you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.” Simultaneously, hints from distributors about ceasing the circulation of new releases in 35mm, some as early as 2013, reached a critical mass.
Tom Letness, owner and programmer of The Heights Theater in Columbia Heights, is realistic about the tidal wave of change: “It is happening, and fast, and soon there will be very little 35mm film content to show of anything new. Luckily my business is viable enough to justify the [expense] to install a digital 2K projector and server.” The Heights runs new films during the week, but is known for its special presentations of classic Hollywood films, from Technicolor musicals to gritty noirs. Like the Walker, Tom plans on keeping his reel-to-reel 35/70mm projectors and putting them to good use. “I am very committed to doing all my classics programming on film as long as there are decent prints are available. So at the Heights, film is not going away.”
For some independents, however, the digital upgrades will be untenable. A recent indieWire article speculated that nearly 1,000 independent theaters in the United States might bow out over the next year, further increasing the dominance of big-box multiplexes. With this kind of transformation, it’s not hard to conjure a back-to-the-future scenario reviving the golden age of studio-controlled monopolies.
Of course, many see this transition as another step toward the ultimate demise of the movie theater, along with the proliferation of screens in our pockets, backpacks, workplaces, and homes, and their attendant distribution streams (Netflix, Hulu, VoD, PPV, instant downloads). But the gadflies determined to write the obituary for the big screen have been around since the 1950s, when television first took hold. And smartphones, tablets, and laptops have little to do with the larger-than-life experience given to audiences in films such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life or Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man or even Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. Innovative programming and the singular, communal involvement of big-screen films will always defy the rhetorical dirge of the dying movie theater.
That’s not to say the cinematic adventure isn’t in turmoil, caught between the push to the future and the pull of the past. With its renovation, generously funded by the Bentson Foundation, the Walker Cinema is perfectly situated to play it both ways, advancing the art of film while also showcasing its history. Its role within a multidisciplinary arts center devoted primarily to contemporary work is a key factor distinguishing it from other small independent theaters. Just as the Walker’s galleries and McGuire Theater are designed to present the widest possible range of artworks, that same flexibility and versatility is essential for the Cinema as new generations of artists reframe what it means to work with “film.”