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Tampa Theatre moves to digital films

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Published:   |   Updated: April 30, 2013 at 10:31 AM
TAMPA -

The historic downtown Tampa Theatre has come a long way since opening night on Oct. 15, 1926, when patrons paid a quarter to take in “The Ace of Cads” a silent film starring Adolph Menjou.

The iconic theater is entering the digital age. Replaced is the tried-and-true, but soon-to-be-obsolete format of film spun through a whirring projector.

Theatergoers are invited to attend the grand unveiling of the digital age in the historic theater tonight with a showing of the visually stunning documentary “Samsara.” The screening is free and open to the public.

While moviegoers still will be immersed in the Greek revival, baroque and English Tudor interior that makes a trip to the 86-year-old theater a unique experience, the big – and expensive – changes are in the projection room and on the screen. The improvements cost nearly $140,000, about $90,000 of which already has been raised from private donations.

Upgrades include:

• Major renovations to the projection booth, such as the installation of new temperature and humidity control systems.

• A new Christie CP-2220 Digital Cinema projector, along with servers, processors and other components.

• A full speaker array behind the screen that uses lasers to precisely direct sound to every seat in the house.

• A custom-designed input panel to make using Tampa Theatre's new technology easy for film festivals, corporate meetings and community groups.

Theater fundraisers have been actively seeking financial support for the switchover for more than a year. By this week, some $89,000 had been raised in donations from individuals, businesses and foundations. The fundraising effort is far from over, said theater spokeswoman Jill Witecki.

“We took out a loan to cover the cost,” she said. “We paid it off, but as an organization, we don't like to carry debt.”

For the historic movie palace, this is monumental.

Over the past century, movies mostly have been shown the same way. Produced on 35 mm film, movies are placed on 20-minute reels and shipped to theaters in film canisters that can weigh 35 pounds each.

At Tampa Theatre, that meant lugging as many as eight reels up several flights of dimly lit, narrow stairs to the projection room, not to mention the shipping costs.

“Now,” said Witecki, “all that comes in a box like this.” She held up a box just a bit larger than a lunchbox. Inside is a hard drive that contains the movie. It's plugged into the digital projector, which sits between two idle 35 mm projectors in the room at the top of the stairs, behind the balcony seats.

The digital revolution took over in Hollywood several years ago, with films being converted from 35 mm film to digital cinema technology.

Digital films are thousands of dollars less expensive to distribute to theaters, and many moviegoers say the films provide a better movie-watching experience. Cinema purists may say a certain color, warmth and depth is lacking with digital technology, while others say digital films offer cleaner, crisper viewing with better sound. Also, unlike 35 mm film, digital won't degrade over time.

Most of the larger theater chains have switched to digital technology, which is expected eventually to replace the 35 mm film format. Most of the offerings from now on will be digital, Witecki said, save for the occasional classic movie that is available only on 35 mm film.

The high cost of the technology at the theater, located at 711 N. Franklin St., partly is because the projection room requires custom installation. The projector at the 1,400-seat venue is farther from the screen and at a higher angle than projectors at more modern theaters.

The installer, Boston Light and Sound, “created a configuration of mirrors that bounces the image twice before it goes out,” Witecki said.

To showcase the new technology, the theater is screening “Samsara” tonight. Filmed over five years in 25 countries, “Samsara” is a nonverbal documentary from filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson.

The film offers visually stunning images from around the globe, featuring sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial sites and natural wonders. Shot on 70 mm film and scanned to digital, the documentary's high-definition imagery lends itself to showcasing the improvements at the theater.

Doors open at 7 p.m. and seating will be on a first-come, first-served basis. The film starts at 7:30 p.m.


kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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