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2008: Reel change

Even for Southern Oregon’s oldest operating movie theater, the clicking whir of the projector is a sound lost to progress.

For moviegoers, the experience at the Varsity Theatre in Ashland is much the same as it has been since it opened in 1937. The screen is silver and gives the Universal Pictures globe a diameter of more than 20 feet. What’s changed is that the bright light from the room behind the audience no longer has a film reel attached to it — nor a person in the projection room.

In 2008, Our Valley explored 130 “Odd Jobs in the Rogue Valley,” including the role of a film projectionist. The writer followed a day in the life of a Varsity projectionist as he spliced together a 75-pound “platter” from 20-minute film reels and got the feature queued up for showtime.

According to Coming Attractions Theatres, which operates the

Varsity and Ashland Street Cinema along with 16 other theaters in

four states, no one works with film reels at theaters anymore, and a shift to digital has eliminated the role of projectionist.

“We’ve absorbed all of the remaining duties into just regular management duties,” says James Sandberg, director of operations for Coming Attractions based in Ashland.

Each of Coming Attractions’ theaters in Oregon, Washington, Northern California and Alaska made the switch to digital projection systems between 2011 and 2013, according to Sandberg.

By 2013, many filmmakers were marking the end of an era, according to an April 2013 article in Variety. The likes of Martin Scorsese and James Cameron discussed the benefits of digital technology while grieving a medium that had been a cornerstone for their craft.

Digital has since become the in-

dustry standard, not just in the United States, but all across the world.

Virtually all of North America’s cinema screens and more than

98 percent of the world’s 171,755 theaters had gone digital by the end of 2017, according to the most recent annual report by Motion Picture Association of America.

There are still 2,481 film holdouts, and they’re all in the Asia-Pacific region.

Southern Oregon’s Cinemark theaters, including Tinseltown in Medford and Movies 6 in White City, have also made the switch to digital cinema.

Messages to a Cinemark spokesman went unreturned, but the chain’s website boasts that digital screens “are immune to the scratches, fading, pops and jitter that film is prone to with repeated screenings.”

In the modern era, Coming Attractions says, it downloads its new releases digitally from a satellite

dish, puts them on a server disconnected from the internet, programs the feature with previews and tells the computer when to dim the lights. The process takes “minutes” and requires no specialized training, according to Sandberg.

The file sizes involved would rapidly fill a run-of-the mill computer.

Depending on the studio’s resolution settings and the film’s runtime, a feature film can be anywhere from 80 to 200 gigabytes, Sandberg says. The 125-minute superhero blockbuster “Captain Marvel,” for instance, shown at Ashland Street Cinemas, has a file size of 151 gigabytes.

Once the theater has the movie file, the film distributor separately gives the theater a digital “key” tied to its server, which unlocks the film to be shown with restrictions that could include one specific screen or only at certain times.

“They can specify it down to the second,” Sandberg says.

What in 2008 was an arduous task of splicing film previews to the feature’s platter is now an easily-programmed “playlist,” he says. Previews are at the theater’s discretion, although studios typically have suggestions.

A watermark hidden in a frame ties the movie to the theater, so the theater takes precautions that include storing the film on a server not connected to the Internet, he says.

It takes minutes to pick the previews from the server, put them in order, and even program when to automatically dim the theater lights.

When all goes according to plan, there’s no need for a person to be in the projection room.

Another boon for digital technology is that Coming Attractions can include promos for the Ashland Independent Film Festival in its film previews, Sandberg says, something that would’ve been cost-prohibitive in the analog film era.

Even art house films have gone digital, Sandberg says.

Many small independent films are sent to the studio via portable hard drives, which then get loaded directly onto the Varsity’s server beside the projector.

Sandberg says that the smallest independent releases — about one film a month — will be played from a Blu-ray disc.

There’s no film projector in the Varsity anymore, but other Coming Attractions theaters still have them, even though few employees would know how to operate them.

“They haven’t even been run in several years,” Sandberg says.

You can reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com.

James Sandberg explains how digital processors and computers are used for showing films at the Ashland Varsity Theater. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune