Right now, in Austin, there are at least two screens that I know of that are projecting digitally. There may be more, which would be all the proof I need that I have to get out of the house more. But I know for sure of two.
One of them is at the venerable, UT-campus-area Dobie Cinema, which has been around forever and which will continue to be around for as long as the word "forever" has any operative meaning. I've seen it go from a tiny venue with broom-closet-sized auditoriums to its current state, now owned by Landmark, with four nice screens, each in auditoriums done up in clever if kitschy decor (one's ancient Egyptian, one's kind of goth-cathedrally looking, one looks like — well — a regular theater, and I can't really remember what the last one looks like except I do recall I saw all 4½ hours of Lars von Trier's The Kingdom in it, which should clue you in on just how kickass this theater is). Their digital screen uses, last I was there, a Windows Media 9-based projector. Looks all right. I've seen Russian Ark and The Eye on it, and while I was not, in common parlance, "blown away" (which I've always thought sounded too painful to be a good euphemism for "excited" or "amazed" or "real, real happy"), it did the job more than adequately.
The other one is state-de-la-arte DLP projection on one screen at a megaplex, Highland 10. They debuted it with the release of Revenge of the Sith. A smart move; you couldn't get tickets the first week for love or money. As it's kind of a drive from my place, I still haven't yet gotten out to see anything on it.
Anyway. One of the reasons bandied about for why theatrical attendance has fallen off while home theater has caught on has to do with the rapid technological advancements made in recent years in the latter, compared to the nearly nonexistent advancements in the former. Really, the last time I can recall a new technological leap appearing in theaters here was way way back in 1993 (pause a moment to indulge in depression over passing of time and accelerating onset of age), when Jurassic Park opened and debuted DTS sound here for the first time. The audience cheered at the crisp DTS trailer before the movie, and the subwoofers probably did bad things to everyone's kidneys.
But since then — well, we've had more theater closings and re-openings-under-new-management than technological sea changes. What used to be Austin's show-palace theater, the Arbor, was shut down and transformed into a Cheesecake Factory. (Which is a chain of overpriced restaurants, not, sadly, a porn studio.) The Alamo Drafthouse introduced the magnificent innovation of a full kitchen, a beer and wine menu, and no kids allowed. But these weren't so much technological innovations as much as "if I ran a movie theater it'd damn well have..."-style improvements upon the basic experience.
The slowness on the part of theater chains everywhere to adopt digital projection has mostly to do with expense. Each auditorium would, it is estimated, require a refit in the 'hood of a hundred grand to accommodate the new tech. But let's pretend money isn't an issue for a moment (a trick independent filmmakers get really good at, trust me), and imagine how widespread adoption of digital projection could improve the lot of independent film.
First, what if theaters were sent movies not as prints, but as enormous digital files downloaded directly from secure servers — granted, this would have to entail the creation of firewalls that would put the Pentagon's network to shame — to each theater's mainframe? (Geeks reading this will, no doubt, correct me ruthlessly if any of my computer terminology is stuck in the 20th century.)
This would be a Good Thing for indie distributors. One 35MM film print can cost a few grand, and while this isn't as big a speedbump for a studio with billions in assets striking 6000 prints of a surefire blockbuster like Shrek, it is an expense that automatically limits how widespread an indie distributor can get any of his low-budget, specialized-audience films. But if you eliminate the need to strike prints, indie distributors can stretch their tiny budgets much, much further. 35MM, while it is still the optimal choice, is just damned expensive. It's the reason so many indie productions don't even think of shooting on film these days.
Now...here's the clever part. (No no, it's clever. Watch.)
Let's say, with digital projection, you no longer need to have pretentiously titled "art houses" (which, in their current state, could best be referred to as "here's the out-of-the-way theater where we dump all the highbrow shit Jack and Jill Sixpack are too stupid to understand and don't want to see") for the purposes of screening smaller, independent films. Let's say you have a huge, huge megaplex, like one of these 18 or 24 or 30-screen monstrosities. Well, naturally, the majority of that is going to be taken up with Hollywood Product. No matter how big those megaplexes get, they still seem to need no fewer than five or six screens to properly abuse the world with this week's Marvel Comics movie.
But if the movies themselves aren't in the form of cumbersome, pricey 35MM reels, but digital files, life becomes a lot more flexible for the theaters themselves. Let's say Putative Blockbuster you've allocated four screens for turns out to be DOA, like Domino or The Island. Presto, you can yank that peesa shit from most of its screens and replace it with something more profitable in a day, without having to deal with the hassle and expense of a 35MM print that you're under obligation by the studio to have for two weeks at least.
What it also means is that one screen can show more than one feature, even within the course of a single day. And this is where life could get very fun for indie films. Imagine, if you will, that somewhere in the world there's a theater chain whose board of directors can actually mentally process the idea that in an 18 or 24-screen megaplex, one to two of those auditoriums could conceivably be devoted to smaller, independent, or non-mainstream films, and let's move on.
What could this mean in terms of improving an indie film's financial fortunes? I think plenty. But remember my disclaimer: this is all too sensible, and will never happen, because it would require both technological and philosophical innovations that this industry simply isn't poised to make. But in my ideal scenario, it's so crazy it just...might...work...
For my example, I'm going to use an indie movie that's currently in what's politely termed "limited release": the highly-acclaimed Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom Roger Ebert confidently assures me will walk down the Oscar aisles for this. Using box-office figures for the weekend of October 14-16, 2005, Capote, in its third weekend, came in 22nd place on 30 screens nationwide with receipts of $363,876, for a per-screen average of $12,129.
Now, that doesn't sound like much, but in fact, that's phenomenal box office performance. By comparison, that weekend's #1 movie, The Fucking Fog, had a per-screen average of only $3,954. But ah, you see, being Hollywood Product, it was on 2,972 screens nationwide compared to Capote's mere 30. See, that's the thing about indie movies; they don't get the widespread play, but the people who love them damn sure turn out.
Now (I have to stop beginning my paragraphs with that word, I know), think about this. Let's say instead of Capote's being limited in its run to 30 rinky-dink "art houses", it can, due to the "bye bye prints" magic of digital distribution and projection, play on 1000 screens nationwide, on those auditoriums at the backs of the megaplexes that are reserved for such embarrassingly highbrow fare. And then, let's balance things out a bit and require a tradeoff for poor little Capote. Let's say that instead of owning the screen it's on, and getting five showings a day on it, as it would have in the 35MM print days, here, it has to share that screen with two other indie movies. This allows it and the two other movies a total of two screenings per day, like so:
Capote: 10:00 AM; Movie #2: 12:30 PM; Movie #3: 3:00 PM; Capote: 5:30 PM; Movie #2: 8:00 PM; Movie #3: 10:30 PM
So instead of getting, over the course of a weekend, an average of 15 showings, Capote is getting six at most. Because of this, let's reduce Capote's fortunes even more. Let's knock its per-screen average by a full two-thirds! Ouch. Hey, $4,039 is still a nice performance, and still better than that of The Ass Remake I Refuse to Dignify with the Name of The Fog. Now, let's look at how much money Capote takes in over a weekend, shall we? Drum roll, please — $4,039,000. Nice. Much nicer than $363,876. On 1000 screens, of course, but with fewer than half the showings, mind you.
Yes, I know this all pie in the sky stuff. But dammit all, it seems so...so...so feasible, you know, when you ignore little annoying facts like the necessity to redefine theatrical distribution and exhibition as we know it before it could even be implemented. But crazier ideas have been seen through to fruition before, you know. That we even have movies at all is attributable to just such crazy idea-making. For the world in which we live, I imagine DVD and the internets will have to be the great white hope for indie films, realistically speaking. But I'm just old fashioned: movies, still, are best seen in theaters, and it would be great if more movies had that chance, and if a better structure were in place to make it happen.
Cripes, that was long. Me for some caffeine.