The Future of Repertory is not Digital

On February 11, 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle published the following piece by "film critic" Mick LaSalle: Audience fading for repertory movie theaters.

Here is our response:

There is no disputing that repertory filmgoing has seen better days in the Bay Area, as it has almost everywhere. However, Mick LaSalle is off-base in his facts, his analysis, and his conclusion.

Mick quotes a current programmer from New York’s Film Forum as saying, of the mid-to-late ’70’s “golden age”, that "Repertory then was bad 16 millimeter prints, beaten to death, with scratches and splices… there were no new prints." On the contrary, here’s a quote from Larry Chadbourne, a local film enthusiast with firsthand knowledge of that scene: “In 1976-1978 I managed two rep theaters in New York with daily double bills and frequently looked at all four of the prints showing. We did very little 16 and though there were admittedly some inferior older 35s there were also many beautiful prints available, not just for my theaters.”

In fact, film, properly handled and stored, has a very long shelf life. A nice print, well projected, looks fantastic. One problem is that bottom-line obsessed exhibitors have succeeded in completely devaluing the role of the projection equipment and the film-handler. Even as new products and technologies have been introduced to improve and simplify the handling and presentation of film, exhibitors have failed to embrace them, have ignored maintenance of their projection systems, and have cut the hours and wages of projectionists.

Look at the Balboa. Unfortunately, its “gorgeous renovation” didn’t go past the auditorium doors, where audiences spend 95% of their time. The auditorium interiors are dingy and, worse, films are out of focus and projected onto incorrectly-masked screens with poor sound. A repertory theater must be able to draw audiences from a wide area and the Balboa, way out in the avenues, is difficult and time-consuming to reach. If it can’t deliver a top-notch presentation, audiences will stay away.

In contrast, the Stanford in Palo Alto has always prioritized good projection. It has maintained rep programming for years and pulls audiences from the entire Bay Area. The Castro may be struggling, but there is no lack of repertory programming on its calendars of late.

The notion that digital presentation could be a panacea for repertory is utterly wrong-headed. Of course, the studios push for this so they can avoid maintaining and replenishing a collection of bulky, expensive 35mm prints, while neatly collapsing exhibition into the same digital model as DVDs, where they feel the real money is, and ignoring the serious long-term problems of digital archiving.

But a film is, ultimately, inherently, and inextricably, a film. It is a sequence of analog images, composed of random grain, possessing unique aesthetic qualities. To digitize such a work is to change it, essentially and visibly. Repertory theaters are the museums of the “seventh art”, where people go to see these artifacts of modern culture presented authentically. The counterfeit cinema of digital presentation will alienate the core audience and truly signal the end of repertory.

Even from a purely commercial perspective, digital repertory makes little sense. Video’s great popular success has been in the home, where it is convenient and cheap. Large-scale theatrical digital projection is no more convenient for the consumer than analog, and in terms of hardware, it is anything but cheap. Why would the same exhibitors who struggle to maintain their film equipment (which is less expensive and, despite neglect, will operate for decades) pay top dollar for rapidly-obsolescent video projectors? It’s far more likely that they will settle for essentially consumer-level gear. The same economies of scale that make it affordable will keep viewers at home where they can have the same inauthentic experience at their leisure.

LaSalle fails to mention that one difference between the Roxie’s screenings of Fingers in 2006 and 1993 is that in 2006 it was a DVD. An experience like that will keep people from coming back.

How many times must we hear the familiar saw that the saving grace of a theatrical presentation is the shared experience with a crowd of strangers? Unfortunately, too much of today’s audience is accustomed to behaving as if at home, and cell phones and light-up watches provide additional distractions. Ironically, Mick himself seems to share this sentiment, since he constantly touts the solitary experience of watching DVDs at home on a whopping 8’ screen.

No, what makes a theatrical presentation special is that it’s (hopefully) on film, that it’s the authentic aesthetic experience of the work. Theaters should be shouting from the rooftops that they are running film, not retreating from it and grasping at digital straws. Of course, they have to make sure that their equipment is maintained and aligned, their projectionists well-trained and conscientious. Film still has the power to blow an audience away.

What else can help save repertory? The Stanford does well with its non-profit model, as do the Pacific Film Archive and the Rafael Film Center. The Roxie, now a non-profit, has inherited the financial woes of its benefactor, but at least managed to get out of its staggering debt a few years ago. Perhaps our other remaining and former rep houses should consider going this route.

But ultimately, the public has to support these institutions. Unfortunately, most people believe the received wisdom that film is out and digital is in, and it’s in danger of becoming self-fulfilling. Film “critics”, who should take a leading role in countering this attitude, have been astonishingly silent on the issue.

The local free newspapers (eg The Guardian, The Weekly, and The Express) devote capsule reviews and sometimes whole articles to repertory screenings. Readers of The Chronicle, on the other hand, might be forgiven for thinking that the Bay Area film scene is limited to first run, DVDs, and the odd festival event. Repertory film deserves more from our leading newspaper than an article bemoaning its downfall.

This discussion is continued here: The Future of Repertory, Part 2