Sunrise Theater Prepares for a Technological Leap
In 1895, the year James Walker Tufts was busy founding Pinehurst, the Lumiere brothers were doing something else rather innovative over in France: inventing movies.
Their amazing system worked like this: You projected light onto a screen after shining it through a continuous, perforated strip of positive film containing individual still pictures that flickered by so fast that it tricked viewers' minds into thinking they were experiencing motion.
Many things about the motion pictures you see in theaters have changed over the years. They've added sound, color and wide-screen formats. There has been an evolution in film sizes and the number of images per second (24 frames per second long ago became the standard). But the basic technology has remained the same for more than a century.
A wave of revolutionary change - one that most of us were perhaps only vaguely aware of at best - has been washing over the movie theater world in recent years. And now it is lapping at the door of our very own Sunrise Theater in downtown Southern Pines. It is causing the board of the Sunrise Preservation Group, on which I happen to serve, to confront some significant decisions.
Let me share them with you - and appeal for your help and understanding.
To grasp the revolution now under way, few experts are more knowledgeable than a man who lives right here in our midst: my good friend Ron Sutton. He taught film for many years at American University in Washington, D.C., and was with the American Film Institute before that. He has been a prime mover in the Sunrise movement since retiring here.
"As we understand it from our systems technical adviser and our film booker in Los Angeles," Ron explained to the board in a recent white paper, "as early as 2014, there may/will be no physical transfer of film in cans between commercial film distributors and commercial film theaters
"Film projection in such theaters will morph from film to 'digital content.' This has already taken place at 50 to 75 percent of all U.S. commercial film theaters - for example, the Frank Theaters in Southern Pines."
To cut to the chase: If the nonprofit, shoestring-budget Sunrise is to continue to offer first-run movies - such as the extremely popular recent showings of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Darling Companion" and "To Rome With Love," then it will have no choice but to invest in new "Digital Cinema" equipment - to the tune of an estimated $70,000 to $85,000.
As you may have guessed, we don't have that kind of money jingling around in the change drawer. So we're exploring alternatives. Obviously, it would be nice if a generous donor would cover the cost or a foundation would come up with a matching grant around which a fundraising drive could be built.
In the meantime, the board has voted to begin immediately adding an optional $1 donation to the current ticket price of $7, thus increasing the cost to $8. It's "optional" because you, as a moviegoer, can opt out if you want to. I hope you won't, because it's for such a good community cause.
I know what some readers may be thinking. It's the first question I raised when I began to hear about all this: I thought the Sunrise already had a digital projector. And it does - in addition to the one it uses to show films. But that's a cheaper, simpler, lower-tech job that is good only for projecting movies once they come out on DVD - as well as live HD transmission of operas from New York and plays from London via satellite feeds.
The familiar distribution of first-run movies to theaters via the physical delivery of film canisters will become obsolete within the next 18 months or so. Replacing it, Ron says, is a process, developed by the major film companies, which will create a "secure, encrypted system" that transmits movies over the Internet. The content will be decipherable only through use of a "key," or coded number - and projectable only with all-new equipment.
The motivation for all this change is, of course, financial. The digital distribution of "films" (wonder what else we should start calling them?) costs a tiny fraction of the money involved in running off all those copies on celluloid, most of which are simply destroyed. But the saving on their end involves a hefty one-time expense on ours.
With careful planning and a little help from its friends, I'm confident that the Sunrise Theater can come through this transition stronger and more vibrant than ever. Next time you're down there, please buy a glass of wine (what other theater offers that?) and drink a toast to this new life for the old girl.
Steve Bouser is opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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