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by Natasha Senjanovic
August 9, 2012 12:28 PM
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Not So Fast: Projection Expert Unspools 5 Major Caveats to the Digital Revolution

As the digital revolution inexorably sweeps film to the cutting-room floor, enthusiasts have hailed its economic and technological benefits (for low-budget filmmakers in particular) as well as its environmental gains. But digital projection expert Karl Mehrer has a few notable caveats.

Mehrer runs K2imaging, a company specializing in presentation technology used at festivals such as the Hamptons, Sundance and Tribeca (where he is technical director). While he admits that digital advances have certainly given more filmmakers access to moviemaking, he cautions that the continuous, rapid-fire changes in technology have created unforeseen kinks in the system. So here Mehrer lists the five major ways that digital-exhibition technology, despite its superior quality and potential, can hurt rather than help filmmaking, presentation and even the environment.

1. While digital projection increases exhibition capabilities for arthouse cinemas and film festivals, it can also drive them out of business.

When we talk about digital conversion, mostly what we’re talking about is theaters that are showing DCP (Digital Cinema Projection). DCP really is the highest quality digital format — you can argue about film being better, but that’s another conversation. However, a lot of small arthouse cinemas are being left behind in the conversion from film projection to digital because it’s an expensive transition and a lot of them can’t afford it. Those three letters automatically mean, “we have to spend seventy-five grand” for a projector and server. Film is about to be discontinued, but how many arthouse cinemas can manage $75,000 to replace each of their projectors?

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The same is true for film festivals. Right now we’re confronted with the problem of catering to the full range of filmmakers — from directors who literally can’t spend one more dollar than they have all the way up to the Hollywood titans. Festivals such as Tribeca and Sundance can afford to rent or buy the right equipment, but what will happen to those smaller festivals that can’t afford to make the conversion as quickly as technological advances dictate? Often they find themselves unable to screen certain films simply because they can’t exhibit the DCP format. That limits their access to many filmmakers, and vice versa.

2. Digital exhibition trends are corporate driven. (And even some of the creatively driven ones are merely distracting.)

The digital projectors that came out over ten years ago are no longer around. They didn’t so much fail as they were updated, and Hollywood seems to invent reasons to make whatever’s out there now just not good enough for what’s coming down the line. This is not an audience-driven trend; it’s a manufacturing, corporate-driven trend. Nearly all of the people watching movies aren’t going to know the difference.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
I’m all for technological advancement, but financially speaking I think it’s a somewhat dangerous model. Modern digital 3D came from the top down — people weren’t picketing outside of theaters saying, “We want 3D! We want 3D!” The new development that’s coming down the line is high-frame-rate exhibition. “The Hobbit” was shot in 48-frames-per-second, as opposed to the standard 24-frames-per-second. The reviews I’ve heard so far are not good. The word “soap opera” keeps coming up.

This is typical with tech innovations and experiments. Even though I need to know a lot about tech, I always make sure to zoom out to the big picture and ask, “What’s the purpose of it exactly?Is it a different way of telling a story?” This new “advancement” is so technical that in my opinion it distracts from what’s really important and what is really needed in Hollywood right now: new, innovative storytelling. I don’t think high frame rate is needed to tell a good story.

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  • Paul | August 10, 2012 3:25 PMReply

    I rather like the idea of a festival not being able to play a film delivered in DCP format. For the foreseeable future, any film mastered for theatrical presentation in DCP format is already well on its way to commercial success in comparison to the genuine indie films for which festivals ultimately are designed.

  • Mo | August 10, 2012 3:11 PMReply

    @DIGITALRULES - You have no idea how festivals really work. I can sympathize with the intention of your argument but it has no relation to the reality on the ground. Just sayin'.
    Good luck out there.

  • transtemporal | August 9, 2012 11:13 PMReply

    Lol, couldn't you have saved yourself a thousand words and written: "Digital sucks. 'Nuff said."?

  • TheCinephiliac | August 9, 2012 10:00 PMReply

    I'm an avid lover of film, the aesthetic and idea of it just warms my heart, and while I'm not too crazy about digital I think some of the speculations about it's impact are a bit far fetched. I feel film and digital both have their pros and cons but I feel the pros of digital outweighs its cons. That being said I don't think digital is the beacon of hope for cinema the way this generation may think or want it to be and I wholeheartedly agree that digital is taking away the focus of good storytelling methods. It's more about looking good as opposed to telling a great story these days and I just wish this up and coming generation of filmmakers will revert back to innovative ways of telling a story and not really so much on the digital format.

  • DigitalRules | August 9, 2012 6:10 PMReply

    1) So-called "arthouses" are not being forced to show any films via DCP except by major Hollywood studios...if they cannot present a selection of innovative alternative films outside
    the Big 5 they are irrelevant anyway...don't need them...we can see breakout indies at the mall or chain theaters
    2) No films are being shown only in 3d...they are always offered as 2d films also...same with
    48 fps...Peter Jackson was even scared to show it at 48fps recently and his will show at 24fps
    in theaters alongside the soap opera version
    3) Carbon footprint...throwing away a machine every 10 years? People junk cellphones, computers, etc faster than that...not an issue....for most of us.
    4)Festivals don't have to bow down to "distributor requirements"...it's your festival, have the
    balls to make your own rules on how you will exhibit films...if you bow down to studios don't
    blame them for making you kiss their ass
    5) Post-prod is definitely easier digital vs film...but I agree people should make sure their audio
    mix is correct.
    All in all digital rules but you make good points which mainly demonstrate that festivals and
    arthouses should stop being wussies.

  • K2 | August 10, 2012 12:16 PM

    TRANSTEMPORAL: I don't think it sucks, I just don't think it's all it's hyped to be.
    DIGITALRULES: I agree principally with all of your points except that I feel that, like many things in our streamlined, bottom-lined, homogonized lives, somehow digital is doing the opposite of what people think it's supposed to do: make things easier, more accessible, more green and allow for more creativity. It's my hope that it will eventually do all of those things but in the meantime I feel that some of the creative and independent elements of society are getting edged out. Perhaps these will be the qualities that will allow them to persevere and succeed in the "digital revolution".