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End of an era: SF theaters go all-digital from 35mm film

Theaters all over the world, including those in San Francisco, have been dismantling their 35mm projectors, which have been used for approximately 115 years, and replacing them with digital projectors. The Marina and Presidio theaters in the Marina district became the first independently owned San Francisco movie theaters to go all digital, this summer. says:

“The end of 35mm film is near,” Marina and Presidio owner Frank Lee said. “It’ll be difficult to obtain film prints probably by the end of 2012 or early to mid-2013. Either you convert or cease operations.

Theater chains, including the AMC’s Metreon and Van Ness multiplexes and Century’s San Francisco Centre screens have gone all-digital within the last year (the Metreon’s Imax theater can still project film). You know that there is no going back when the neighborhood theaters, which lack the resources of the big chains, convert to digital.

“Each digital system cost upwards of $70,000,” said Lee, who had six such systems installed at the Marina and Presidio. “And actually, the savings is not going to be substantial because of maintenance and constant upgrades to the digital systems.” says:

Those of you who crave your moviegoing excitement at 24 frames per second can still watch flickering film at Lee’s 4 Star theater in the Richmond District, as well as the Balboa and Vogue theaters, owned by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation. They eventually will have to convert as well.

The other major chain in San Francisco, the independently skewed Landmark Theatres, will convert its 14 city screens to all digital within the next 90 days, a spokesman confirmed. Currently, Landmark has two digital screens in the 10-screen Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.

Of course, repertory houses such as the Castro Theatre, the Roxie Film Center and the S.F. Film Society still have their 35mm projectors, as well as a digital setup. The Castro even has a 70mm projector – it will screen a 70mm restored print of “Vertigo” this month.

The largest benefit of going all-digital will be to to studios and distributors, which will save millions of dollars on the cost of film and shipping fees. It costs about $1,500 to ship 35mm prints in 80-pound film canisters, vs. about $150 to ship Digital Cinema Package (DCP) hard drives. Studios are helping to subsidize the conversion by paying theater owners like Lee a “virtual print fee,” although he had to pay for the installation of digital projectors up front.

The passing of 35mm film is the end of an era and will be mourned by theater owners like Lee.

“I have projected film for almost 40 years,” said Lee, who owns hundreds of classic Chinese and Hong Kong 35mm prints in a collection started by his father, who owned theaters in Chinatown in the 1960s.

-Bill at

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