“It’s not something we chose to do; it’s something we have to do,” said Steve Lieber of Upstate Films, which is raising money to upgrade its projection equipment from analog reels to digital HD. The cinema still has to come up with $30,000 of the $180,000 needed to buy new projectors for the theaters in Woodstock and Rhinebeck.
“In the next three to four months, five at the most, distributors will no longer be making 35-millimeter prints. Celluloid, analog — finito,” reported Lieber. “Right now, in the Hudson Valley, every theater has already complied with this directive. We’re the only theater still doing 35-millimeter.”
Since 2000, the film industry has been developing standards for digital production and projection, with the goal of improving visual quality and reducing piracy. Digital technology will also save distributors an estimated $35 million a year on printing and shipping. Instead of arriving in a 75-pound can of reels, films will consist of gigabytes of information delivered on a hard drive or, ultimately, downloaded from a server.
“It’s similar to what’s happening to books and music,” observed Lieber. “There might be some advantages — scratches won’t happen, the sound will be clearer. But at same time, thousands of small theaters around the U.S. might be forced out of business.”
Upstate Films has operated as a not-for-profit since 1972, adding a second screen to its Rhinebeck theater in 1999. Lieber and his wife, DeDe, have leased the Woodstock theater from Cy and Nancy Adler since February of 2010. The Liebers have since split, but they continue to run the business with the mission of bringing to local audiences a mix of first-run and independent films, often addressing social issues.
“It’s an anachronism to have a single-screen theater in a small town,” said Lieber. “I’m biased, but I think it’s worth preserving. Many experiences in contemporary culture take place in solitude, looking at a phone or computer screen. People walk into telephone poles while looking at their iPhones. We need to have a place where the public gets together, and the community can be in one place, to sit in the dark with 100 or 1000 people and be transported to other cultures.”
People who like the look of 35-millimeter may be dismayed by the new technology. And while the scratches and other problems associated with reel-to-reel projectors will go away, there may be other crises. “They will be the kinds of problems you have with computers,” said Lieber. “There will be some trouble-shooting that we’ll need to know how to do.”
But the theater doesn’t have a choice. Even one of the biggest distributors of classics, Janus Films with its Criterion Collection, is now making digital re-releases.
As a non-for-profit, Upstate Films is eligible for grants, which have already made up a good proportion of the money raised. Individuals have also been generous, including one movie-goer who died and left $15,000 to the theater. But more money is needed to buy the required projectors.
To make a donation, drop cash or checks off at the theater, 132 Tinker Street in Woodstock; mail checks to Upstate Films, PO Box 324, Rhinebeck NY 12572; or visit the cinema’s website, http://upstatefilms.org, and click the “Support Us” button.