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The recent movie "The Wolf of Wall Street" has earned five Oscar nominations and some rave reviews. But lots of movie theaters won't be screening it because they can't. Paramount pictures is the first big studio to distribute a major release entirely on digital; in other words, no film. And other studios are likely to follow.
As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, most big theaters have already installed fancy new digital projectors. But for smaller cinemas the price tag is a real challenge.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: For a lot of neighborhood movie houses it's go digital or...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think we're finally going dark.
SYDELL: This was a Kickstarter video to help raise $30,000 for the Tampa Pitcher Show. A group of regulars who dress up and perform at screenings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" are making the plate.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We've got to start showing our movies digitally otherwise we're not going to be able to show them at all...
SYDELL: So far, the Kickstarter campaign, which ends on Friday, is not going well. but fans of neighborhood cinemas like the Tampa Pitcher show say these small cinemas offer more than a big multiplex; they are community centers where people can act out "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," see locally made films and live events.
But first-run movies pay the bills and Tampa Picture Show owner, Wayne Valenti, says he was taken by surprise when he got a letter in early December from Paramount announcing it would cease distributing most of its first-run movies on film by Dec. 31.
WAYNE VALENTI: They just really gave a short straw notice on the thing and we either had to convert or close the doors basically.
SYDELL: It's not as if Valenti didn't know this day would come. The movie studios have all been giving warnings for years that the end of film is nigh.
ISABEL FONDEVILA: They keep sending us letters, distributors, like, Heads up. We're not going to have anything else but DCP so get ready.
SYDELL: DCP stands for Digital Cinema Package, which is what the studios are calling the new digital equipment and that's Isabel Fondevila, the director of the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
FONDEVILA: The Roxie is the oldest continuously running theater in the country.
SYDELL: Fondevila and I climb a narrow staircase to the projection booth. Yeah, it's a bit of a ways up here, isn't it? The Roxie has two big, hulky 35-millimeter projectors screwed down to the floor. So you want to show me how this thing works here? I'm talking to Jim Lung. He's been a projectionist at the Roxie for over 30 years.
Lung threads the film, lights the lamps and finally flips the switch. Oh, that familiar sound soon to be gone. Lung is not looking forward to the change because he doesn't like the look of digital.
JIM LUNG: When you can actually sit there and you can see pores on people's skin, it's like, What happened here? You can actually see some makeup on them sometimes. Have you seen that yourself? In the old days, you would never see that.
SYDELL: Lung's not alone in his love of film. Quentin Tarantino says he'll quit before he makes his movies on digital and Christopher Nolan demanded that his next film "Interstellar" also be available in film. But the change to digital distribution is inevitable. It's cheaper for the studios and easier to make digital copies than film prints.
Fortunately, the Roxie can take more time converting because it's a nonprofit that runs mostly art house films. But it will need over $100,000 to outfit both its screens. To get that money, Roxie director Fondevila says she needs...
FONDEVILA: A miracle. No, not really a miracle, but something like it.
SYDELL: Fondevila can find some hope across town.
ADAM BERGERON: My name is Adam Bergeron and I'm the owner of the Balboa Theatre and today we are showing "The Princess Bride, which we were unable to get until we converted to digital.
SYDELL: Bergeron did a Kickstarter campaign to update his small theater in a neighborhood on the edge of San Francisco. The Kickstarter for the Balboa raised over $100,000, enough to update both of the Balboa's screens. Bergeron has some nostalgia for film. But he says, as a small theater, it's really important to have the right movie at the right time. Studios make a limited number of film prints; making digital copies is a lot easier.
BERGERON: It's not as huge of a process as striking a 35-millimeter print is so it's made it easier to get movies.
SYDELL: Though Bergeron has had success, a quick look at Kickstarter shows many campaigns by small neighborhood theaters have failed. The National Association of Theatre Owners says of the nation's 40,000 screens about 37,000 have gone digital, but it seems likely that at least a few may end up going dark instead. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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