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Mayfair Theatre holds fundraiser to raise $55,000 for digital cinema package

Bethany Ditzel | Fulcrum Contributor

Photo by Justin Labelle

The other day, I was fortunate enough to catch a showing of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic, Pulp Fiction, at the Mayfair Theatre.

This was my first time seeing it on the big screen, and as soon as the immortal line, “I love you too, Honey Bunny,” prompted whoops and cheers from the audience, it was clear to me that this was the way Tarantino wanted his film to be watched: projected against the wall of a well-worn but undeniably cool theatre, complete with cigarette burn cue marks onscreen and the sound of the 35-mm reel spinning in the projector.

“When you watch a film in a theatre on 35 mm, you’re experiencing something you can’t experience at home,” says Mayfair Theatre programmer Lee Demarbre. “When I’m sitting there watching a movie, my mind is not only fixated on the light bouncing off the screen in front of me … what’s going on behind me in the projection booth is just as important. If I know I’m watching a digital video projection, it’s not special for me.”

Since 1889, movies everywhere have been shot, distributed, and projected at 24 frames per second on 35-mm film, but come January 2013, all new projects will be shot digitally. By the end of this year, studios and distributors will no longer be producing or shipping film prints. This means that the Mayfair Theatre will have to drop $55,000 on a digital cinema package (DCP) to stay in business.

In order to raise the money needed, the Mayfair is celebrating its 80th birthday in style by holding a monthly countdown of every decade’s best films since the theatre’s opening, starting with the ‘90s and going all the way back to the ‘30s. This month is all about the ‘40s, and will include a showing of the 1942 hit Casablanca on Oct. 21.

With directors like Martin Scorsese admitting that the fight for 35 mm is over, coupled with the fact that by 2013, 83 per cent of theatres will be using digital projection, it seems that the traditional film format will become a thing of the past.

Ottawa’s oldest movie theatre may not survive this change. For 80 years, the Mayfair has treated Ottawa’s population to a unique cinematic experience, and nowadays is the go-to place for independent, foreign, and cult films, as well as the latest releases.

Demarbre says that unless the theatre raises $55,000 to buy the necessary DCP projector to screen digital films, “we’re dead meat.” In fact, most independent cinemas in North America will be dead meat. The Mayfair and other independent establishments like it must adapt to survive.

Christopher Nolan, director of such films as Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, has advocated to preserve celluloid film, having stated that “the danger comes from filmmakers not asserting their right to choose that format. If they stop exercising that choice, it will go away.” This can also apply to the audience.

But why should you care? Surely this is just part of the inevitable modernization of cinema, right? According to University of Ottawa communications professor Gary Evans, it matters because there is a radical difference between 35 mm and digital.

“The quality of the image can never be as good digitally as it is on 35-mm celluloid,” says Evans.

Digital movies are noticeably digital; the picture is precise and perfect but also sterile and cold. Meanwhile, film is warmer; the colours are richer and have more depth.

“As a filmmaker, I have an affinity for celluloid,” says Demarbre. “Watching The Expendables 2 at SilverCity was like watching a YouTube video on the big screen.”

“Good digital presentation does exist, but big cinemas aren’t doing it right,” Demarbre continues. “Picture quality is deteriorating in big cinemas, the quality of bootlegging is going up, studios are creating a lie called 3D and a lie called IMAX. If they are going to do that, they have to make sure that the presentation is better than at home.”

Evans says the filmmaking process has been altered, especially where editing is concerned. Editing will become “an altogether different enterprise,” he notes. Manual techniques like cutting on action, match cutting, and other methods that have been historically associated with moviemaking will be abandoned.

Without a doubt, digital filmmaking is simpler and easier; to print a film on 35-mm reels and ship those reels to theatres costs about $1,500, while digital film distribution costs about a tenth of that.

While this certainly means that more movies can be made, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those will be quality movies.

“When you’re looking at a 35-mm print of Pulp Fiction, you’re looking at a positive of the negative that was in the camera on set when they made the movie,” says Demarbre. “You’re looking at something that is exactly the way Tarantino intended you to watch it. Pulp Fiction deserves that kind of presentation, and the studios are not going to make that available anymore.”

To contribute to the Mayfair Theatre fundraiser, visit


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