Movie theatre GQ: How are films delivered to your local theatre?

More of a simple GQ, but since it’s about the film industry I’ll put it here:

Back in the distant past new films were delivered in canisters to the local theatre, shown by a live projectionist, and then returned. How are they delivered now? Are they on DVDs, or are they delivered via the Internet somehow (i.e. no hard format at all), or some other format?

Is there a live person in the booth at any point or is it all computerized? And does anybody know how the films are protected against piracy by theatre employees?

I think there’s a satellite dish on the roofs of our newer movie theaters. I’d have to look again and check.

I wonder if the small town older places still use film? There’s so many out there that it would cost a fortune to convert them all.

Film cans are still delivered to most theaters in smaller towns, big-city theaters which are not part of large chains, and arthouse theaters. Your average gigunda-super-megaplex takes delivery of most major releases, typically in DCI-compliant digital video, in the form of shipped hard drives or even over the Internet.

Even at these theaters, they won’t be showing all digital content all the time. Smaller releases nd imports are still commonly printed on film and require film projectors to show. And many multiplexes only shell out for digital equipment for their largest auditoriums, setting up cheaper film projectors in the smaller ones. Thus they may end up ordering digital and film prints of the same movie if they want to show it in multiple theaters.

I thought it was very unusual when friends who were attending the opening night of The Hunger Games at an Indianapolis-area 16-screen+IMAX megaplex told me that the film broke in the middle of the very first showing. I know Lionsgate is a non-major (I’ve heard it being called a seventh major now that it’s merging with Summit), but for such a high-profile and wide release, I was really surprised that someone chose film for the debut at that theater.

I remember 30 years ago my dad had a part-time job as a theater manager. He’d pick up cannisters of film that arrived on the Greyhound bus and bring them home to take to the theater on the assigned day. I remember I opened one (hey, I was 12! and curious!) and actually pulled a couple feet of the film strip out of the center to take a peek, but of course there wasn’t much to see at the very end of the film except ‘The End’. I inserted the curly bit of film back into the center of the roll, put the metal cover on, and no one was the wiser.

Point of all this is, I would hope they have a better system to get films in the theater now. Things can go wrong with cannisters of film - theft, loss, damage, and prying fingers of the curious.

Piracy is of course a huge concern, since we’re not talking DVD quality here - films for theaters are digitally released in either 2k or 4k format, meaning 2,000 or 4,000 pixels horizontally - the latter has roughly 4 times the amount of pixels of FullHD, a isn’t as compressed as a Blu-Ray. It’s the first format that pretty much replicates the resolution of a 35mm film. So you bet that they are taking every precaution to protect their property. Every copy they send out is digitally watermarked to identify the theater, and before each screening they have to get a unique permission code from the studio.

IMAX film is still not practical to convert to digital. You know how I said that the 4k format is roughly the equivalent of 35mm? Well, IMAX is 70mm, twice the size in both directions, which translates to a fourfold increase in resolution. Digital projectors and storage are not there yet. (The action scenes from The Dark Knight were actually shot in IMAX, you can see it on the Blu-Ray when the format changes from black bars for the 35mm to Full Screen for the IMAX scenes.)

Do you mean the films were shipped via Greyhound, or he had to take the bus somewhere to get them?

These days they usually get sent via UPS, IME.

Back in the dark ages, I used to run a 12 plex. There is a whole business who’s reason to exist is to move film prints around and store them. We would pick up our prints early as a 6 print change would take days to put together. Now UPS or FedEX drops off a hard drive in a shell, and it gets snapped into a reader, a digital hand shake takes place and the studio gets their money.

Beats hauling “Ghandi” up to the booth. (35mm is about a pound a minute. Don’t get me started about 70mm)

The film that broke wasn’t in IMAX, it was a standard format… I just mentioned the IMAX to illustrate that the megaplex in question was fairly large and modernish (and AFAIK has digital projection in the 16 non-IMAX theaters… and apparently some film projectors in a few of them).

I don’t know if it’s done much anymore (there are probably stricter security measures in place, and of course, it wouldn’t be possible with digital), but in the '80s it was fairly well-known that projectionists would routinely snip a single frame out of interesting/iconic/nude/whetever scenes, and sell them to people who made illegal photo prints. This was pre-internet, pre-DVD-screen capturing, and so forth, and there actually was a collector’s market for that kind of thing.

The audience would hardly miss 1/24 of a second of the movie, but if enough hands wanted a piece, the results could be apparent. I remember seeing *The Blues Brothers *in a second-run bargain house. The Bluesmobile drove up one side of the drawbridge <snip> and drove down the other side. The two seconds or so of the car actually jumping the gap had all been chopped.

When I worked in a theater about 20 years ago, movies that were expected to be very popular were shipped under false names as a safeguard against theft. For example, IMDb says that King Kong was shipped under the name “Tiny Dancer”, and the eighth reel was shipped separately from the rest.

Yes, the films were shipped via Greyhound bus. Dad would drive in his car down to the bus station and pick them up. He would usually deliver them directly to the movie theater, but a couple times he would bring them home and deliver them the next day.

It might not be evil intent—a head rap on the platter can munch several feet of film, and I had a Superstar destroyer film split on Jedi that ate twenty feet. Worst one I saw was in a house that had hour reels—second projector reel tension was set bad and the print would snap at startup. Those moviegoers never saw Sulu and the helicopter in Star Trek 4. (It was the result of idiots–backed down the take up tension and oiled the clutch pad, no further problems)

What device did they use to stitch the film back together?

It’s fairly technical, but I’m pretty sure it was called “tape”.

What ever tech the theatre uses to show the print is what the studio needs to send them.

But for film days, the booth was like a little editing bay. You have a film cutter and splicer. Used to put the reels together so you can show the film as one solid piece or to repair damage.

I didn’t see Raiders of the Lost Ark until it have been out for a while. It was missing quite a bit of footage. Indy broke off the Mercedes logo on the truck and was suddenly jumping back in the side door.

hehe. Yeah, it’s just tape, but there’s a special little rig you use to splice the film together. It cuts the film to a nice square edge and aligns the top and bottom of the spliced section using little pins that perfectly fit the sprocket holes to hold the film straight while you tape it. You smooth the tape (careful, no bubbles) and lower the cutting rig, which removes all excess tape and punches through the sprocket holes so that it’ll zoom through the projector without a hitch. Then you flip it and tape and trim the other side. If you’re smart, you offset it by one extra sprocket hole on the back, so that the extra thickness of the tape doesn’t run through the projector all at once.

Everyone knows about the “cigarette burns” that appear when a reel change occurs. If you’re observant, you can tell that one is coming up before the cigarette burns appear, because the film will be scratchier and dirtier at that point, the result of being handled more at the reel change segment than anywhere else.