Wizards of Awe

film nick2The Nick/Del Mar digital upgrade brings the future of movies to Santa Cruz

You may not have noticed, but a revolution occurred in the Santa Cruz arts scene last December. While you were out Christmas shopping, the busy elves at the Nickelodeon and Del Mar theatres were taking a giant leap into the future of movie presentation.

Gone are the huge reels of 35 millimeter film, whirring away with a clattering of sprockets. In their place, the four Nickelodeon and three Del Mar auditoriums have now been converted to all-digital sound and picture projection. If you didn’t notice, that was the point: they managed to make the conversion pretty seamless for the public, only cancelling a few matinees here and there to get the new equipment in. 

But now that it’s up and running, the folks at the Nick and Del Mar want to make sure that you, the public, knows all about it. “We didn’t cut any corners, we went for the top of the line,” says Maurice Peel, Advertising and Publicity Coordinator for Nickelodeon Theatres.  He notes that owner Jim Schwenterley invested half a million dollars to place Santa Cruz directly into the forefront of this new technology.

The digital upgrade has been, in a word, massive. Nick 1, the largest of the four Nickelodeon auditoriums, has been upgraded with new digital sound, speakers, and screen, along with the new digital projection system. Nick 2 has a new projector. Nick 3 has a new screen, much taller than the last one, to improve sightlines. Even tiny Nick 4 has a brighter screen and new behind-the-screen speakers.

Over at the Del Mar, the Grand Auditorium downstairs already went digital in 2010 with the conversion to 3D capacity. But now a new 3D screen has been installed upstairs as well, along with the rest of the digital conversion. For curmudgeons like me, who still think of most 3D as a cheesy gimmick left over from the ’50s, Scott Grifin, Chief Operating Officer of Nickelodeon Theatres, and longtime manager of the Del Mar, points out, “There are different 3D (systems) out there.” It’s all about, “the quality of the presentation.”

“Dolby 3D (installed in the Del Mar) doesn’t need a silver screen—it’s not directional—so it looks good from anywhere you’re sitting in the auditorium,” says Griffin. And while the 3D downstairs is comparable to anything in San Francisco, he says, the 3D experience upstairs on the smaller screen is “fantastic!” Especially on a film like Hugo (playing there now) where dimension is such an integral part of the experience. They even bought an industrial strength dishwasher and stainless steel drying racks to wash and dry the 3D glasses between shows.

How many of these backstage improvements will the public actually notice? “No pops in the sound, the picture is brighter and cleaner,” says Peel. He also hopes the digital upgrade will “help re-establish the Nick as a hub in the community,” enabling a local filmmaker, for example, to come in and screen a film one time only for a select audience of friends.

Community events like the Santa Cruz Film Festival will benefit as well; “It’s all going to look better,” says Griffin. Longtime perpetrator of midnight shows at the Del Mar, Griffin adds he can even play a Blu-Ray DVD through this system, if no other format is available. “It’s allowed me to play (midnight) films (whose prints) are too degraded.”

(Both the Nick and the Del Mar still retain the capacity to project 35 mm film, in the case of what they call “Archive films,” or anything interesting that comes along that can’t be viewed any other way.)

film nick1Other changes are more cosmetic. The auditorium in Nick 1 has new Surroundsound speakers on the walls (between those fabulous Art Deco light sconces), and a new carpet. The giant black speaker boxes under the screen are gone too (which looks a lot cleaner, although Bruce Bratton, Wallace Baine, and I will have to find somewhere else to sit when we host our annual pre-Oscar movie discussions). Out front, the Nickelodeon lobby is getting a face-lift as well; look for new paint, flooring, cabinetry, and film-reel lighting fixtures in the coming weeks.

Once all the new digital equipment is in place, behind-the-scenes operations are streamlined as well. Instead of unwieldy film cans, distributors now format a hard drive about the size of an old VHS tape and send it out to theaters in a padded orange plastic box that looks like some kind of portable hazmat container.

The wizards at the Nick then build a show on a digital library server, starting with the movie, adding trailers and ads, etc., to be fed to each auditorium. A digital email “key” sent from the distributor unlocks the download. (A download-and-play system Scott compares to iTunes.) Unlike the fallible element of film, there are never any scratches nor any other kind of print degradation in the digital image.

Thirty-five mm film was “a lot of work,” says Griffin, with a lot of problems. Massive reels of film become prohibitively expensive for distributors to strike and to ship. Opening dates often had to be juggled because there weren’t enough individual prints to go around. With each exhibitor responsible for shipping the print to the next exhibitor at the end of its run, theater owners had no quality control over the prints they received; they might arrived damaged, or get lost in transit.

As George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have been preaching for 20 years, digital conversion is the inevitable future of the movies. “Conversion is something all the commercial theaters are doing,” says Griffin. But unlike independent theaters, the big chains have corporate investors to pay for it. “For art theaters, it’s a huge deal,” notes Griffin, who adds, “I don’t know if Santa Cruz realizes how unique it is to have a large independent theater like this.” Many proprietors of art-house theaters nationwide, like indie bookshop owners before them, have had no choice but to close their doors.

Why is Santa Cruz different? “We are blessed; we’ve got a great audience here,” says Peel. An upgrade of this scale would be inconceivable without the community already in place to support it. In return, the Nick and Del Mar staff want to provide the best moviegoing experience possible for their loyal customers. As Peel points out, digital conversion is “technology that really serves the public.”
It’s all good news for patrons who want to remember why they love movies on a big, beautiful screen. Big kudos to the folks at Nickelodeon/Del Mar for taking the plunge. At last, it’s technology even a Luddite can love.

Learn more at thenick.com.

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