Williamstown's Images Cinema latest to embrace digital projection


WILLIAMSTOWN - Dave Blair, the projectionist at Images Cinema on Spring Street since 1985, is standing at the brink of a digital wave that is changing the way movies are presented around the world.

Beginning next week, his job is going to be very different when the one-screen nonprofit movie theater switches to programed digital movies, leaving the 35 millimeter film projectors behind.

It is the same digital wave that has taken many movie lovers out of the theaters and into viewing motion pictures delivered digitally through Internet streaming to their iPads, computers and big-screen televisions.

Blair acknowledges the coming wave with good humor and a healthy attitude.

"I just happen to be standing directly in the path of it," he said, chuckling.

According to Sandra Thomas, executive director of Images Cinema on Spring Street, the theater has secured enough funding to move to digital presentation starting next week.

While the new digital format will offer movie goers better picture and sound, the fact is that Images had little choice if it wants to stay in business.

With the digital system, rather than shipping movies on spools of 35 mm film, distributors send data hard drives containing digital versions of the movies, which are then downloaded into the theater's projection system.

It will allow the showing of both 2D and 3D movies and enhanced features offered for the hearing impaired.

"This is the biggest change in film exhibition since the talkies," Thomas said. "The movies will be cleaner and crisper with a better audio experience.

"And today, it is already logistically harder to procure film versions of current movies."

The technology also offers other opportunities, such as simulcasts of live events and special documentary series, she said.

Images will be showing "Life of Pi" on film through Tuesday, Thomas said. The theater will be closed Wednesday and Thursday to install the new projector system and screen, and reopen Friday showing the digital version of 'Life of Pi.'

Being able to change to digital is a significant achievement for Images, as most nonprofit movie houses are finding it a real challenge to procure enough funding for the changeover.

Thomas said the transition was made possible through a $16,000 grant from the Mass achusetts Cultural Council and donations from Williams College and private donors.

"We absolutely needed this to keep the organization going," Thomas said. "It's something we need to do to survive, but it means a different livelihood for [Blair] and other projectionists everywhere.

"So we have to be able to make the transition and move into the next phase respectfully."

Projectionists like Blair, who until now would sit in the projection booth during each movie showing, will now just download the feature, program the system to show the movie at the appointed times, and go home. Larger movie houses might be able to find other duties for their projection staff, but smaller cinemas like Images have fewer options.

Blair, who is often seen helping with repair and renovation projects at the theater, hopes that repair and maintenance might become a part of his job description.

Otherwise, he'll have more time to spend at home or at his full-time job as assistant manager at the Greenberg & Sons hardware store in North Adams.

For Blair, his part-time projectionist job will go from three to five days a week to a couple of hours once or twice a week.

"It's just not necessary to have someone stay in projection booth through the whole movie," he said. "With film, we'd have to watch to make sure the gears don't slip or the film doesn't break. Not anymore."

For movie makers and distributors, this will be a sea-change in the amount of money it takes to manufacture and deliver a production to theaters.

With no more pricey film to purchase (the 13 billion feet of 35 mm film sold in 2008 will plunge to 4 billion feet in 2013), and no more bulky movie reels to ship, the savings are significant.

According to a study released by IHS, formerly known as Information Handling Systems, by early next year, digital projectors will be used in most theaters.

It will be the first time since motion pictures were developed in 1889 that film-projected movies will be in the minority. In 2004, film projectors were regularly used in 99 percent of theaters.

By 2015, the study predicts, film projectors will be in regular use in only 17 percent of cinemas around the world.

Some movie distributors have notified their customers that they will no longer be offering film versions, moving to strictly digital formats in the coming months and years.

For movie houses, the cost of the changeover - roughly $70,000 to $80,000 per projector - is slightly offset by the marginal savings in labor costs with projectionists' hours being reduced, Thomas said.

Despite all the advantages offered by digital, Images is hanging on to its two 1950s-era 35 mm projectors, Thomas noted, so they will still be able to show classics or specialty productions on film.

"It's all well and good," Blair said. "Technology is going to change everything anyways. And this digital system is supposed to present perfection from one end of the movie to the other. We'll see how it goes."


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