Orpheum goes digital

Blame it on James Cameron.

“The release of ‘Avatar’ in December 2009 represented the pivotal moment for digital cinema, with digital technology forming the bedrock of the modern cinema environment,” said David Hancock in a 2011 story in the California-based IHS Screen Digest. “Before Avatar, digital represented only a small portion of the market, accounting for 15 percent of global screens in 2009. After Avatar, digital’s share grew by leaps and bounds, jumping by 17 percentage points in both 2010 and 2011, compared to the single-digit increases during the previous years. This single film has driven up demand for digital 3-D technology at the expense of traditional 35mm celluloid.”

For small cinema, such as the historic Orpheum Theatre on Main Street, this meant investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, or sure death.

Orpheum manager Peter Lawrence explained the decision was made by theatre owners Thomas B. Thornton Inc. to switch from traditional analog film to digital, and to make one of the theaters 3-D as a way to survive and deliver a better product.


With the end of analog film on the not-too-distant horizon, and an incentive program by the film industry, the theatre’s owners invested more than $250,000 to switch all three theaters to digital, and one to 3-D, Lawrence said.

And while many say that Avatar spelled the doom of analog film, production costs were also a huge factor. Film is more expensive than digital as a medium.

“It has just gotten too costly for movie companies,” he said.

Between all the technology and manpower needed to make a print, including the sound track, it got to the point that the royalties the film companies had to pay for different technologies got too expensive. Now, instead of 35mm film being shipped to theaters, distribution companies send out hard drives with the movies on them. The hard drives are inserted into servers, Lawrence explained, and the movie is projected through what can only be described as “a large DVD projector.”

The big switch-over at the Orpheum occurred during the last week of March. A new screen was installed, because a 3-D screen needs to be brighter than a traditional white screen, Lawrence said.

A 2009 Wired Magazine story explains how 3-D works – “RealD cinema, currently the most widely used 3-D movie system in theaters, uses circular polarization — produced by a filter in front of the projector — to beam the film onto a silver screen. The filter converts linearly polarized light into circularly polarized light by slowing down one component of the electric field. When the vertical and horizontal parts of the picture are projected onto the silver screen, the filter slows down the vertical component. This effectively makes the light appear to rotate, and it allows you to more naturally move your head without losing perception of the 3-D image. Circular polarization also eliminates the need for two projectors shooting out images in separate colors. The silver screen, in this case, helps preserve the polarization of the image.”

This is the third evolution of 3-D, Lawrence said. The first was in the 1950s. It made use of cardboard and cellophane glasses, the 3-D illusion created by two projectors operating side-by-side. This version stuck around for a while until it was replaced with a new system in the 1970s that used only one projector, a development that really didn’t catch on.

But the new version has caught on. Theatre-goers flocked to the Orpheum last week to see another film by James Cameron — yep, that guy again — and they loved it. It was a 3-D version of Titanic, re-released to coincide with the centennial of its sinking.

“Usually when a film has gone to TV and out on video, we don’t think it will do well coming back into theaters,” Lawrence said.

The next film up for the Orpheum’s 3-D experience – The Avengers.

The Orpheum is a Saugerties institution. A program from the 1911 Saugerties Centennial promises: “motion pictures, Vaudeville shows, roller skating, dances, musicals and dramatical entertainments.”

And though, as with proponents of vinyl records, there will always be some who swear by film, the irresistible wave of progress has touched this old theatre and consigned the noisy, bulky reel-to-reel to the dustbin.