Movie theaters transition to digital projection

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May 10, 2012 - 7:00pm

In the dark projection booth at Film Streams, a two-screen theater in Omaha that shows independent and classic films, Jim Foyt works by the light of a small desk lamp. He's been doing this job for more than 40 years at more than 50 theaters. He effortlessly, yet carefully, rewinds reels of film, loads projectors and manually makes adjustments to put the best possible picture on the screen. An expertise he realizes isn't needed at most big-time theaters.

"We knew years ago this was coming, we were just basically hoping it wouldn't come too quickly," Foyt said. "After the transition over to a lot of the digital houses in town, you don't need anyone. They actually run the digital right out of the office; they set the times, everything. So the projectionist's job is pretty much obsolete."

When moviegoers take their seats at a theater, they probably don't give much thought to how the film is projected on to the screen. For more than 100 years, starting a movie was a tedious process that required the skilled hands of trained projectionist. But as the industry shifts from film to digital, there's no longer a need for projectionists at most theaters. Danny Ladely is the director of the Ross Theater in Lincoln, which shows independent films. He has witnessed this monumental transition.

"This is the biggest advance in the industry since the advent of sound, and that made huge changes in the industry," Ladely said. "A lot of people's lives were ruined after that."

The transition to digital might not be much different. Except now, projectionists are the ones whose careers are at stake. If a theater can afford the initial costs of purchasing a digital projector, it's much more affordable in the long run. But some projectionists remain, including Lynn Rogers, projection manager at the Ross Theater.

"We got our first digital projector more than 10 years ago and they've been improving ever since for brightness and clarity," Rogers said. "They're very good, and they will become absolutely dominant."

The Marcus Theatres Lincoln Grand Cinema made the shift to digital just last year. Manager Lisa Fryda said starting a movie has been simplified to the click of a mouse.

"We basically type in our show schedules which will show what times our movies start in different auditoriums," Fryda said. "So there basically isn't anyone coming upstairs anymore hitting a start button or a run button. It's automatically done by a computer."

The digital conversion has certainly streamlined theater operations. In fact, the most recent wave of technology involves satellites, which puts the projection efforts in the hands of someone hundreds or even thousands of miles away. One of those places is Ballantyne Strong. It's an Omaha company that once developed and distributed film projection equipment. Now they distribute digital projectors and they've capitalized on the new satellite technology. Their network operations center has essentially become the new-age projection booth. But the place looks more like NASA's Mission Control. Thousands of movies are run from here every day all around the world. About a dozen people sit at desks, monitoring computer screens. Four large television screens displaying U.S. maps line the front of the room. Watching these maps, technicians monitor thousands of pieces of digital projection equipment making sure the shows start on time.

Chris Stark is Ballantyne Strong's vice president of operations. He believes the digital conversion is overall beneficial for the film industry.

"Sure it affects projectionists, but that's such a small piece and there's so much more beyond that that really is a positive for the industry, a positive for our business," Stark said, "and where one area goes down the other area comes up."

But for projectionists like Rogers, it's tough to see the positive impacts.

"There is a perfectly good paranoia to everything in this business," he said. "Everyone in this industry is in constant terror of being replaced."

Inside the chilly film archive at the Ross Theater, Rogers is also worried that the reels of film that surround him are becoming a thing of the past.

"You know, all of us are going to be dead; it's not going to matter," he said. "To future generations, maybe some of this will have some value."

These feelings were echoed my Film Streams projectionist Jim Foyt.

"I always had a funny feeling I'd be one of the last," Foyt said. "A lot of the old projectionists, not to say I'm glad they're dead, but I'm glad a lot of them are not witnessing the death of film, because I think it would have killed them anyway. It would have broken their hearts."




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