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?
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.
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.