Coolidge Corner Theater Begrudgingly Embraces the Digital Age

coolidge corner theater film digital cinemaPhoto via Kingdafy/Flickr

Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theater is unique even among independent cinemas. From its art deco marquee, to its artisanal soda fountain dispensing New Jersey’s Boylan Bottle Company, to its local craft beers on tap courtesy of Pretty Things and Clown Shoes—it’s a rare landmark dedicated to complete movie-going experiences. Sure, it has the standard popcorn and candy, but even these are handled with precision and deliberation—the popcorn cooked in canola oil, real butter applied sparingly to avoid a greasy, saturated pile of puffed kernels, and a “classic” candy selection that avoids the neon hues of Wonka’s factory.

But independent movie theaters like the Coolidge are in serious trouble. Hollywood studios such as 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. are in the process of completely phasing out celluloid 35mm film in favor of digital cinema, some as early as 2013. Even “mini-majors” like The Weinstein Company and smaller studios like Magnolia Pictures are under mounting pressure to succumb to the digital revolution.

To prepare for the imminent transition, the Coolidge Corner Theater has started a campaign called the Digital Cinema Challenge, aimed at raising funds for necessary upgrades. Outfitting theaters with digital projectors is extremely costly, and movie houses not named AMC or Regal are facing tough decisions regarding their future. Equipping the two main theaters at Coolidge will cost an estimated $223,000. That cost has been slightly alleviated by the Massachusetts Cultural Council that bestowed a grant of $55,750, but the theater has a long way to go.

Program manager Jesse Hassinger says that although financial assistance is available, the aid often comes with the cost of control over content.

“Basically, the distributor will give them content and dictate when and what is going to be played in their houses. As an exhibition house, your hands are tied,” he explained. “That’s how they’re able to subsidize it, because essentially, it’s free advertising. The Coolidge Corner Theater, being a nonprofit independent, a truly independent theater, doesn’t believe in that. We don’t want somebody else, especially a distributor, dictating what we can or cannot put on our screen beyond the actual films that we want to play.”

Executive director Denise Kasell has worked in the entertainment business since she was 20. Her bluntness regarding the Coolidge’s transition belies the docile setting.

“When push comes to shove, when Olive Garden owns you, you’re not in control.” Kasell says. “I don’t care what you say. When you’re a not-for-profit, the people own you. The people are in charge. That’s a big difference from Olive Garden.”

The other major predicament in this forced paradigm shift is the detriment to quality. Hollywood studios seem unconcerned about the sentimentality of abandoning film or producing a lesser product. They’re looking at the bottom-line. It costs about $1,500 to print one copy of a movie on 35 mm, not including the costs of shipping heavy metal canisters to thousands of theaters; whereas a digital copy costs around $150. This is why directors like Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and Paul Thomas Anderson have all been outspoken about the blanket shift.

“That’s the thing that upsets me the most about switching to digital,” says Hassinger. “The industry, because they’re seemingly just concerned about money, are forcing a technology on the public that’s only going to be accepted by the lowest common denominator. People who don’t care about film as art won’t care that they see a movie on digital projection. People who actually care about film as an artistic medium, more often, will be frustrated by seeing something digital. The quality is just that bad.”

The Coolidge Corner Theater isn’t merely a part of the film community, but an essential cultural anchor to the greater Boston area. Several historic and independent theaters in the Midwest and along the Eastern seaboard have already fallen victim to the unspoken creed, “Convert or die.” Boston now has the chance to stanch the trend.

“I hope within the next 10 years, there’s a resurgence of film,” says Hassinger. “I hope it will happen. It happened with vinyl, it’s happening right now with cassettes…maybe it will happen with film.”