The film industry is in the process of completing its most significant change since the 1930s, when "talkies" replaced silent films. In about a year's time, every theater across the nation must convert to digital cinema -- gutting current infrastructure and replacing it with expensive new technology.

The demand comes from film studios, such as Warner Bros. and Paramount, which will save billions in production and shipping costs by putting their movies on lightweight computer hard drives instead of on heavy, physical film prints.

According to the National Association of Theater Owners, many independent theaters are "in a pinch" as they scramble to finance such a complex project. Digital cinema requires computer servers, software management systems, and 3D screens for 3D entertainment. And, of course, digital cinema demands digital projectors that cost around $75,000 each.

Simply put, Minnesota's small-town and historic theaters are between a rock and a hard place. Many cannot afford the switch to digital technology, and when film prints are no longer available, they will likely go under.

It's up to the film studios to keep these theaters alive, either by extending the window to convert to digital cinema or by developing programs to help finance small-scale theaters.

Ever since its introduction in 1999, digital cinema has been viewed as the future of the film industry. Despite this, many theater owners have had little incentive to make the switch. Digital cinema saves money for the studios, not for the theaters.

To get some perspective on just how much the studios will save from this conversion, consider that each film print made and shipped costs at least $900. A widely released film is shipped to around 3,000 theaters. That's more than $2.5 million for a single movie. It's no wonder the studios are pushing for a digital conversion.

And to their credit, the studios are no bullies. In an attempt to help theaters transition to digital cinema, they have taken their savings and implemented something called a Virtual Print Fee (VPF) model.

According to Motion Picture Karagosian Enterprises (MKPE), a consulting firm for cinema technology, this means that movie theaters receive payments for converting to digital cinema. Within such a model, financing and digital equipment are provided by third-party companies called integrators. In theory, theater owners can switch over to digital technology at a marginal cost.

But if this sounds too good to be true, it is. Many independent theaters do not qualify for such programs, and will have to negotiate their own financing and buy their own equipment. This is not an easy task. In the theater business, financing is dependent on how many movies play at a theater each year, or a "turn-count." In other words, small theaters with fewer screens will receive less financing.

And because the digital rollout started in the midst of poor economic conditions, theaters find themselves negotiating with banks that are hesitant to give out loans.

Another concern comes from how quickly technology advances. According to MPKE, the life expectancy for digital projectors is around 10 to 15 years, whereas their 35-millimeter counterparts can last for decades. The difference comes from what's under the hood.

Film projectors have always provided a fall-back plan for theater owners, because even in a worst-case scenario, their rudimentary parts can be custom-ordered.

Digital projectors, on the other hand, are wired with complex circuit boards and semiconductors -- technology that becomes obsolete. Manufacturers are more likely to invest in new equipment rather than reengineer outdated technology. In 20 years, movie theaters may need to buy new equipment all over again.

The studios have a chance to become heroes. If they push for flexible VPF programs and extend the deadline for the digital conversion, small-scale theaters will have the opportunity to make the switch during a better economic climate. They can thereby preserve community outlets and historical sites.

And for moviegoers, the options for movie magic won't dwindle down to a few overpriced multiplex theaters.


Benjamin Bradley is a manager at the Andover Cinema and a technical communication graduate student at Metropolitan State University.