Movie News & Reviews

Rich Copley: Kentucky Theatre enters digital age with new projectors

Holding a digital copy of the movie Mud, far lighter and smaller than its 35mm print, Kentucky Theatre manager Fred Mills, right, and Friends of 
the Kentucky Theatre member John Shaw showed off a new digital projector.
Holding a digital copy of the movie Mud, far lighter and smaller than its 35mm print, Kentucky Theatre manager Fred Mills, right, and Friends of the Kentucky Theatre member John Shaw showed off a new digital projector. Lexington Herald-Leader

"Try lifting it," Kentucky Theatre manager Fred Mills said, referring to the case containing the 35mm print of the Matthew McConaughey movie Mud.

Hoisting the 63-pound box could be a hernia-inducing moment if you are not used to it.

Mills is all-too used to hauling celluloid reels up the long, narrow stairs to the projection rooms at the Kentucky Theatre and neighboring State Theater.

But those days are over.

Last week, the Kentucky shut down for four days to install digital projectors in both theaters, retiring the 35mm Century projectors that had served the theaters for decades — the projector in the Kentucky had been there since 1955, Mills says.

While some lament the transition from an analog to a digital world, Mills says, the theater, built in 1922, had to make the change. "It's a situation where at some point, if you didn't make the switch, you would just have to close your doors," he says.

"The film studios haven't said when they will stop distributing 35mm prints, but people seem to think it will be sometime in 2014," says John Shaw, a member of Friends of the Kentucky Theatre, an organization that has been raising money for theater renovations, including the new projectors and accompanying sound equipment.

But it's not cheap, a fact that has posed serious problems for rural and smaller theaters. Shaw estimates the digital conversion at the Kentucky will cost $156,000.

Finding a company to do the conversion was more of a challenge than the theater expected, Shaw says, because so many theaters are having digital projectors installed.

A crew from Sonic Equipment Co. of Iola, Kan., arrived Monday after theater employees moved the 35mm projectors out of the way. The old ones remain in the upper level of the theater. Mills is not sure what will become of the behemoths and their ancillary equipment, which includes giant film platters that allowed movies to be shown without changing reels of film.

In comparison, the digital projectors are much smaller, though big and heavy enough that a crane was needed to lift them into the balcony, rather than carrying them up those narrow flight of stairs to the projection booth. The movies come on computer hard drives that hook into the projector via ethernet cables; Mills says some smaller, independent films will come on specialized Blu-ray discs.

In addition to the new projectors, the theater was outfitted with new screens and new sound, which Mills says some theater managers have cited as the unexpected benefit of the new digital gear.

Although his ears were stopped up a bit because of a cold, Mills says he thought scenes from Mud that were being shown to test the new projector on Thursday sounded distinctly better than they did in the 35mm format the previous week.

Mud, which co-stars Lexington native Michael Shannon, will occupy a place in Kentucky Theatre history as the last film shown in 35mm and the first screened in digital projection.

Even more than sound, Mills says, there will be benefits to the audience in the larger number of titles available to the theater, particularly for events such as the Summer Classics series.

Mills says it was important to him to get the digital conversion done before the series starts May 29, with Gone With the Wind. The changeover is showing benefits already because the theater has scheduled films including The Shining and An Affair to Remember that previously were unavailable for the summer series.

"The way it would go is, Larry would call the distributor and ask if a print was available on the film, and if it was, he'd ask what kind of condition it's in," Mills says, referring to the Kentucky Theatre's Cincinnati-based film booker, Larry Thomas. "If the distributor said 'fair,' he probably wouldn't book it, and (would) move on from that title."

After all, Mills doesn't want to advertise and get people in the theater for a film that breaks or looks and sounds bad.

With digital projection, the quality of the product is consistent.

Mills says he has heard from some patrons who are not happy about the change and want the theater to keep the 35mm projectors for occasional use. He asked projection engineers about that before starting the changeover, and says he was told it would be more trouble than it was worth because the number of titles and print quality would drop considerably as digital takes over.

It is the end of an era.

Thankfully, for Mills and his staff, it's also the end of hauling 60 pounds of film up the stairs every week.