Will the last movie theaters in Nashville to show celluloid film please stand up? 

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click to enlarge Photo: Michael W. Bunch. Location: The Belcourt

Photo: Michael W. Bunch. Location: The Belcourt

When it comes to the effect of technological change on traditional art forms — and the industry that makes its bank off them — Nashville practically knows the story by heart. Blindsided by innovations in selling and recording music, Music Row is now adapting to the Jetson Age. As for bookstores, the local reading community is now celebrating a rebound of sorts, giving thanks to Karen Hayes and Ann Patchett (not to mention Barnes & Noble) while recognizing how close the city came to losing the opportunity to impulse-buy new books on site.

Now the Ice Age looms on another cultural front: celluloid.

For some 120 years, film has been the primary medium on which movies were shot and shown. But according to a report from the IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service released Nov. 15, the majority of the world's movie theater screens are going digital, replacing reels and ribbons with an electronic copy projected by way of a hard drive or server.

Prognosticators at IHS say that by the end of 2012, 35mm's share of the global cinema market will drop to 37 percent. Within five years, they predict, the celluloid filmstrip will be tomorrow's cassette tape or VHS cartridge. A Nov. 9 letter from Twentieth Century Fox to exhibitors, posted by critic Roger Ebert on his blog, cautioned theaters that "the date is fast approaching when Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Searchlight will adopt the digital format as the only format in which it will theatrically distribute its films."

In Nashville, the bar-graph data holds true. A gradual changeover completed just a few months ago ushered Regal's Green Hills 16 and neon-giant Hollywood 27 at 100 Oaks into the brave new digital world. The recently reopened Opry Mills 20, with its stadium seating and IMAX screen, has followed suit, joining the Carmike chain's Thoroughbred 20 in Cool Springs. And while the Memphis-based Malco chain's Roxy in Smyrna has the capability to show film, it plays mostly digital. Even the renovated historic Franklin Theatre in downtown Franklin shows digital.

The movie industry is embracing digital for the same reason as filmmakers: lower cost. Print expenses are slashed. All 27 screens at the Hollywood 27 can be operated at the push of a button. And it bears saying that decades of careless celluloid projection have made easily standardized digital an improvement for lots of ticket buyers. Proponents tout its sharp image and its insusceptibility to wear and tear — unlike celluloid prints, which lose their color and carry battle scars of pops and scratches.

"Digital cinema brings consistent quality to the movie-going experience —moviegoers will see the same crispness and clarity in the movie throughout the life of its exhibition," reads a list of digital cinema talking points issued by the National Association of Theater Owners. Calls to Regal's corporate headquarters in Knoxville were not returned by press time.

Aesthetically, though, lovers of celluloid treasure those blips and scrapes as part of the experience — whether as irreplaceable artifacts of light passing through the emulsified image, or just a nostalgic reminder of moviegoing conditions. It's much like the attachment record collectors have to vinyl, which they prize both for its warmer analog sound and the fondly recalled sensation of sliding the LP from its sleeve.

Anxiety about celluloid's end has been reflected to some degree in the movies — starting with last summer's blockbuster Super 8, an elegy for 1970s backyard filmmaking. In its first few weeks back in operation, the Opry Mills 20 has already shown two current movies that mourn silent cinema, Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist. Both were projected digitally.

But is the passing of celluloid something the vast majority of moviegoers will notice, let alone decry? And for those who care — for whom the difference is as much a sticking point as watching a movie letterboxed on DVD or truncated by pan-and-scan — are there any theaters left where cinephiles can revel in the celluloid experience before it passes?

Here in Nashville, we found two, at the opposite ends of the moviegoing spectrum.


The only remaining commercial film houses in Nashville are The Belcourt, where new independent features get a first chance at life and classics get a second, and the Carmike Hickory 8 at Hickory Hollow, where studio fare enjoys a casual retirement from the megaplex before it's put out to pasture on DVD.

At the Hickory 8, where tickets are only $2, all eight screens project 35mm film. A small cult of local cinephiles knows it as the occasional host to oddball under-the-radar releases, such as the obscure 2009 Joel Schumacher horror film Blood Creek. Mostly, though, it shows wide releases dwindling to second-run.

Its prints come from first-run theaters. But as those still using the old method decline, the supply of hand-me-down prints will inevitably follow. A Hickory 8 manager tells the Scene that a digital changeover could be coming early next year. If the ticket price stays the same, it's doubtful the theater will hear much complaint.

That's not the case at The Belcourt, a venue nearly as old as the medium it hopes to preserve. The 1925 Hillsboro Village arthouse appeals to film lovers for whom words like "restored 35mm print" are a selling point.

"I can't think of a time that we've charged full price to show a film digitally that was originally shot and exhibited on film," says Belcourt program director Toby Leonard. "It's true to the history of the art form to keep it like that. You're not going to go into the Frist and see a digital representation of a famous work from the Impressionist era."

On a recent weekend afternoon at The Belcourt, you could witness the antique magic whereby light projected through celluloid produces Humphrey Bogart on screen in Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place — or in the opposite hall, Elizabeth Olsen in the sensational indie Martha Marcy May Marlene.

At the Belcourt, the majority of screenings are delivered via 35mm projection. The exceptions are typically smaller documentaries, which arrive in high-definition Blu-ray Disc format because digital duplication is typically cheaper for the filmmakers. Sarah Finklea, theatrical and TV manager for legendary art-film distributor Janus Films, says that 35mm prints for a new color film start around $2,000 — going as high as $10,000 for a repertory title such as Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped, part of an upcoming series. Digital versions, in comparison, run perhaps 80 to 90 percent cheaper. Most of this year's Doctober series at The Belcourt was screened digitally.

The Belcourt's two halls are each equipped to project 35mm film. The 1966 hall — that's the one off to the left, which hosts most of the repertory screenings — has what is known as reel-to-reel projection. That's the age-old setup, which uses two side-by-side projectors alternately as each reel (accounting for about 20 minutes of screen time) ends. Both halls have a platter system, as well, which requires splicing multiple reels of film into one large reel that is placed on a platter and fed across the room to the projector.

Almost as endangered as the medium is the lonely figure in the upstairs booth who makes sure those reels run smoothly: the projectionist, Kevin Doyle. In many digital theaters, an automated system allows for the whole process to be initiated by the touch of a button on a computer near the concessions. Should a problem occur, the people selling popcorn are — through no fault of their own — ill-equipped to fix it. Doyle, by contrast, must bring up even the house lights manually when the credits roll.

If the movies have taught us anything, it's that we should be careful trusting machines. Problems with digital projectors have even plagued the cinephile's most hallowed destination: the film festival. In Toronto this year, digital hiccups delayed several screenings. When several DCP (Digital Cinema Projection) projectors, and their backups, failed on the first weekend of the Vancouver International Film Festival in October, audiences were shown watermarked DVD screeners.

Organizers of the Nashville Film Festival in April, hosted by the newly digitized Green Hills 16, say they're not anticipating such a disaster — even though some local cinephiles have already voiced their disappointment that the festival will not hold the line on celluloid.

"We don't think it's going to have too large of an impact," says NaFF artistic director Brian Owens. "We were expecting it. In our call for entries, we've already let all the entering filmmakers know that we won't be doing 35mm."

If there are any difficulties, Owens says, it will likely be with films from overseas, particularly in Europe where filmmakers are still using 35mm predominantly. Owens says he's already been in touch with several European producers, however, and they are adjusting to the change.

"I've never had any qualms about showing something digitally, because a great film is a great film regardless of the medium that carries it," Owens says. "I don't want to watch Lawrence of Arabia on an iPhone — I won't go that far — but I will watch it at any given opportunity, whether it's a restored 35mm print or a digital one."

But European filmmakers aren't the only ones who value the distinction between 35mm and digital. James Clauer is a native Nashville filmmaker whose 2006 short "The Aluminum Fowl" was shown at both Sundance and Cannes. His long-awaited first feature, When the World's on Fire, is scheduled to show next year at the International Film Festival Rotterdam alongside a roster of new and established global auteurs. He filmed it in Nashville, at locations along Nolensville Road, with a cast of unknowns — precisely the sort of indie project that screams "digital video."

Clauer didn't see it that way. He shot it on Super 35 film stock.

"I wanted to do IMAX," Clauer says, laughing. In all seriousness, he adds, he always liked the look of celluloid. "It has more depth — it's richer," he explains. While he shot his previous film on digital and believes "it can look really great — better than film," Clauer says celluloid gave him "more latitude."

Above all, he says, "I just wanted the experience of doing it."

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