Digital screens boost alt options

Tech upgrades help keep up with audience demands

As arthouse exhibitors grapple with tighter budgets and a continued economic slump, many are debating the pros and cons of going digital.

With today’s cash-strapped indie filmmakers often opting to shoot and distribute digitally rather than on the more pricey 35mm, a growing number of niche exhibitors are making technological upgrades in order to accommodate the type of alternative fare their audiences demand.

“There’s this inevitableness of digital projection,” says Balcony Films’ Connie White, who books for several specialty cinemas. “Still, it costs roughly $100,000 for a (DCI-compliant) projector, which is astronomical for the indies.”

The not-for-profit Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., is among the first to take the full digital plunge, outfitting its three theaters with Sony 4K DCI-compliant projectors alongside 35mm and 16mm projectors, which have become arthouse mainstays.

“More filmmakers are working in the digital realm these days,” explains the center’s founder and executive director Steve Apkon. “It’s imperative for us in exhibition to present those films properly.”

But until prices come down on state-of-the-art equipment, many art houses — whether not-for-profits or mom-and-pop shops — are going a less expensive digital route. Roughly 30% of the venues represented at this year’s Art House Convergence belong to the all-digital network Emerging Pictures, which offers specialty films as well as live opera and ballet in high definition. Emerging managing partner Ira Deutchman says would-be members typically need to spend $10,000-$35,000 to be network-compliant, depending on the state of their current equipment. Though the digital upgrades provide a high-definition image that is theatrical quality, they would not be considered studio compliant, meaning a studio-distributed film like “Black Swan” would still need to be shown in 35mm.

Still, many exhibitors contend that 35mm is the preferred format for the discerning cineaste.

“We want to do 35mm as much as we can,” says Stephanie Silverman, managing director of Nashville’s Belcourt Theater. “We actually publicize what format our films are being shown in, and our audience tends to prefer that format. So long as the studios will cut 35mm prints, we see no reason to upgrade.”

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Niches go nonprofit | Getting the word out | Digital screens boost alt options | When tickets don’t cut it