The upgrades were made in order to remain in the “mix of contemporary, global art cinema,” said Brian Hearn, OKCMOA film curator.
Hearn said he and the museum’s film program team began funding for the upgrades in 2011 with a “Projection Perfection” campaign. Donations from private family foundations and everyday patrons allowed Hearn to make three major changes to the theater.
During the last five days of July, workers replaced the theater screen with microperforated material, reconfigured the speakers to project sound directly behind that screen and installed a digital projector with enhanced resolution.
The new resolution, which is typical of iMac computers, is referred to as “4K,” meaning 4,000 pixels form the image, Hearn said.
“A lot of it is just upgrading the entire audiovisual system, so it’s not just plunking a new projector in here,” he said. “It’s sort of like plumbing.”
In the projection booth, cords are twist-tied in spaghetti-like bundles; disks are slipped in and out of ceiling-high machines; and two film projectors bookend the 4K digital projector as if protecting the newest addition to the family.
“We’re probably in the last 10 percent of American cinemas that are making the [digital] conversion,” Hearn said.
Like other independent theaters and nonprofit venues, OKCMOA had to pave its own way financially and logistically through the digital revolution, he said, noting it’s a matter of “death or digital.”
In the early 2000s, the Hollywood studios established the Digital Cinema Initiatives to form a standard for digital projection that would eventually replace 35mm film, which Hearn said was the global industry standard for more than 110 years.
Multiplexes and commercial theater chains were able to renovate first.
“The advantage of taking our time and holding back was the technology got better and less expensive,” Hearn said.
As a film connoisseur, he brings in current independent and international films, making these recent digital upgrades a necessity.
“Let’s face it: Moviegoing has been massively affected by the digital revolution of Internet, video games and mobile devices,” Hearn said. “You have to compete with all these other screens, essentially. We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve.”
Fate of film
Preserving cinematic culture for future generations, Hearn has collected more than 500 reels of 16mm and 35mm celluloid feature films at the museum, and continues to show them to audiences.
“Literally, probably half of our collection came out of a Dumpster,” he said. “We hadn’t really planned on collecting film, but now it’s become instantly scarce; it’s much more precious to us.”
Movies such as Casablanca and Sunset Boulevard reside in the cold, dry storage room upstairs at the museum.
“Celluloid is still and will continue to be the archival medium for movies,” Hearn said. “It can last hundreds and hundreds of years if stored properly.”
He said digital cinema will face instability as a medium because digital technology quickly becomes
obsolete. But the ability to screen decades of films, Hearn added, was
worth the six-figure investment.
“If we had not been able to make this transition into digital, we really would be painting ourselves into a corner,” Hearn said, noting that some distributors continue to distribute 35mm films. “And they tend to be classic titles or restored titles, which is great, but our bread and butter is new releases — the stuff not hitting the multiplex.”
Amid the transition, both in-house and within the industry as a whole, OKCMOA is balancing dual responsibilities: providing its customers with the “most wonderful experience of cinema” and preserving that experience, Hearn said.
“As long as it looks good and sounds good, most people don’t really care,” Hearn said, “but we do.”