As guest contributor Tara Judah observes in the post below, the landscape of the cinema industry is rapidly changing. Exhibitors are currently in the foggy intersection between old and new, with cinemas across Australia — and indeed the world — in the process of replacing 35mm film prints with DCP (Digital Cinema Package) technology.

The issues and problems that arise from good ol’ fashioned film projection are well known, from delivery problems to missing sequences and prints too dirty to screen. Digital projection will remove many of these issues but, of course, will cause problems of its own. This illuminating post by Judah, a part time critic and the PA to the Proprietor at Melbourne’s iconic Astor Theatre, elaborates on one in particular after a screening last month — through no fault of the cinema — went badly wrong.


Tara Judah writes: We all have nights we’d rather forget. But, sometimes it’s better to talk about it the morning after. And given that we’re in a relationship here (we the cinema, you the audience), it’s probably for the best that we tell you what happened and, most importantly, why it happened the way it did.

Last month we had an unexpected, unwanted and unpleasant delay to our screening of Take Shelter – the first feature in our Wicked Wednesday double bill. I use the words unexpected, unwanted and unpleasant because we’d like you to know that it was for us very much as it was for you – and it was also something that arose out of our control.

As the cinema in this relationship there are many aspects of your experience that are within our control; the atmosphere you take in when you visit the Astor is something we work hard at crafting to provide to the best of our ability, given that it too falls within the confines of often extraneous factors. But sometimes those extraneous factors, that we do our very best to work within and to work with, present themselves in such a way that we can’t control the outcome and consequently all we can do is deal with the problem at hand as quickly – and hopefully – as best possible at the times when they occur.

The landscape of the industry is changing, rapidly. Most of you will already know this because we share with you the changes as they occur. Last year, we installed a new, state of the art, Barco 32B 4K digital projector. The reasons for doing so were varied and many. With so many wonderful classic film prints having been “junked” (destroyed) over the years and with the unavailability (certainly commercially) of so many film prints there has always been a huge void in what we were able to show in a theatrical environment (this is not even including the various issues surrounding the availability of valid film rights).

The advent of digital projection and the increase in availability of digital formats for classic and cult films has indeed opened up some truly wonderful opportunities for us to present to you films otherwise confined to the small screen (among them films such as Taxi Driver, Dr Strangelove, South Pacific, Oklahoma! and Labyrinth, to name a few). Further to this, the major studios within the industry are moving towards what is being hailed as the “digital revolution”. The term itself is terrifying. Whilst there are many advantages to digital presentation there are, as with anything, pitfalls too. What we are seeing now is the removal of 35mm film prints in favour of digital presentation, most often DCPs (Digital Cinema Package).

Unlike 35mm film prints that are tangible, come on spools, and run through a mechanical projector, DCPs are files that are ingested into the digital projector which is in many ways simply a very high-tech computer system. Because the physical file is ingested into a projector it can – if the cinema has enough space on its server – be kept there indefinitely and so, having created this situation themselves, the studios and distributors lock the files so that they can only be screened at the times scheduled, booked and paid for by the cinema. This means each DCP comes with what is called a KDM (Key Delivery Message). The KDM unlocks the content of the file and allows the cinema to play the film. It is time sensitive and often is only valid from around 10 minutes prior to the screening time and expiring as close to 5 minutes after the scheduled time. Aside from the obvious fact that this means screenings really do need to run according to scheduled time, it is also means the projectionist can’t test to see if the KDM works or that the quality of the film is right before show time. This isn’t always a problem. But when it is…

When it is a problem we have what happened last month. The KDM we received for Take Shelter didn’t work. We discovered this about ten minutes prior to show time. Being a cinema, and holding evening screenings we couldn’t just call the distributor to get another one because they work office hours. So, our steps began with calling a 24 hour help line in the US. Once we went through the process of authenticating our cinema and scheduled screening we were told we had to call London to authorise another KDM for this particular screening. After calling London and re-authenticating our cinema and session, we were told we could be issued another KDM, but not before the distributor also authorised it. This meant another 5-10 minute delay as we waited for the distributor to confirm that we were indeed allow to show the film at this time. Once confirmation was received we waited for the new KDM to be issued. The KDM arrives as an email zip attachment that then needs to be unzipped, saved onto a memory stick and uploaded onto the server. This takes another 5-10 minutes. Once uploaded the projector needs to recognise the KDM and unlock the programmed presentation. Thankfully, this worked. However, until the very moment when it did we were as unsure as our audience as to whether or not the new KDM would work and therefore whether or not our screening would actually go ahead.

This is one example of one incident in one cinema. There are thousands upon thousands of screenings at cinemas just like us all over the world constantly experiencing these same issues. Had we been presenting the film in 35mm it would have started on time. The projectionist would have had the film print made up, threaded up and aligned before you even took your seats; heck, before we even opened our front doors for the night. But this is the situation the industry has created and one they continue to tout as superior to the presentation of 35mm film.

I’m not saying there aren’t advantages to digital cinema, but what I am saying is that there are problems. And worse still, problems that are often out of our control but that make us look incompetent. We employ fully trained projectionists at the Astor Theatre, you know, the kind who have more than twenty years experience each, who used to hold a projectionists’ license (when there existed such a thing), and if a reel of film were to break, or the projector were to need maintenance, or if a lamp needed changing, they would be qualified and able to solve the problem on the spot. With digital however there is no skill in the problem solving; it requires above all else, phone calls, emails and delays. The fact that I – who holds only the most elementary and theoretical training in cinema projection – can even be a part of the process of “solving” the issue at hand demonstrates clearly just how removed the industry is becoming from its own medium, its own unique essence.

We’re not saying that digital is the devil but we want you know what’s at stake. The industry is determined to remove film prints from circulation – they openly say that there won’t be film prints in theatrical circulation within just a couple of years’ time. There are instances in the US already where some studios are refusing to freight 35mm film prints to cinemas. The pressure this puts on independent cinemas to “convert to digital” however is a topic for another blog post, another time.

What I’d really like to leave you with here is the essence of how the Take Shelter screening last month made us feel: the industry is shifting – not only its medium, not only its focus, but with it – and most significantly for theatres like us – it’s shifting the element of control. We’re in relationship with you, our audience, but it seems to me as though someone is trying to break us up. We want to continue to give you the experience you expect and deserve when you visit our theatre, and we want more than anything for you know that even though we can’t promise it won’t happen again, we’ll do everything we can to continue to fight for this relationship. The first step to repairing the damage done last month is to be honest with you about how and why it happened.

Written by Tara Judah for the Astor Theatre. An original version of this post was published on the Astor Theatre Blog