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Kitsilano cinema fights for film survival

Flickering movies played on film are dying in the age of the digital picture. And some theatres aren’t sure that’s…

By Kendall Walters , in Culture , on October 28, 2010 Tags: , , , , , ,

The Hollywood Theatre's neon sign has lit up Kitsilano's West Broadway since it opened in 1935

Flickering movies played on film are dying in the age of the digital picture. And some theatres aren’t sure that’s a good thing.

“You’re not going to be able to replicate film, no matter what,” said Chris Unwin, a projectionist at Kitsilano’s Hollywood Theatre.

The cinema is the oldest independent, family-run theatre in Canada and one of the few remaining to use film.

“Digital is horrible,” said Unwin.

Some people argue that the quality of digital cannot match that of film. Others say the two mediums are interchangeable and audiences won’t notice the difference.

Either way, for some, film allows a connection to the past that digital cannot mimic.

‘It’s an art form’

Projectionists at the Hollywood Theatre say they don’t just play movies; they play films.

Each movie screened by the Hollywood is loaded up on a round metal reel and played on projectors the theatre’s had since 1940.

“It’s remained unchanged,” Unwin said. “It’s just like the old days.”

Unwin came to the Hollywood 12 years ago from a big multiplex, where he was responsible for multiple showings at a time. An earpiece fed him reminders.

His job at the Hollywood is very different. “It’s an art form here,” he said, adding they don’t want to change.

Digital price tag

To switch over to digital projectors would cost the Hollywood at least $75,000. The expense would be closer to $100,000 if the theatre wanted to play movies in 3D.

The Hollywood Theatre still sells old-fashioned admit one tickets

It’s a pretty big price tag for a small, independent theatre.

However, Unwin said he thinks the Hollywood will have to give into the digital revolution in the end. He said he believes that soon movies will no longer be available on film.

“It’s coming,” he said. “We’ll have to do it eventually.”

John Dippong, Telefilm Canada Western Canada regional director, doesn’t agree.

“There’s probably always going to be people who will use film,” he said. “I don’t think it will die altogether…There’s a place for both.”

Hollywood history

When the Hollywood opened 75 years ago, it was touted as the ultimate in modern cinema. Now it’s anything but, and that’s what draws audiences.

For some, it’s about memories. Many first dates and first kisses have happened in those rows. One man proposed to his girlfriend in the theatre. Another couple was married there.

For others, it’s about silver screen glamour.

“It’s how the images live on the screen,” said actor Mackenzie Gray, who hosted the Hollywood’s three-night 75th anniversary gala. “There’s a magic to an old cinema… There’s very few of them left.”

The Hollywood is one of only a handful of classic cinemas that haven’t been bought up by multiplex chains or converted into condos.

Opened on Oct. 24, 1935, the Hollywood still has the trappings of that decade. People buy tickets from a little glass booth between the theatre’s front doors. They purchase popcorn, pop and Nanaimo bars from a tiny concession.

Movie-goers sit on deep crimson seats with wooden armrests. A balcony overlooks the auditorium.

When the Hollywood opened, everyone sang God Save the King before the movie started. They applauded as the credits rolled.

Alice Fairleigh shares the Hollywood Theatre's ticket booth duties with her grandson, Vince Fairleigh.

Family business

The Fairleigh family built the Hollywood. A couple nights a week, Alice Fairleigh, the wife of the first manager, still sells tickets from the little glass booth out front.

She’s 82, and just one of a whole family of people who’ve lived their lives at the movies, and poured their love into the Hollywood.

The Fairleighs played one of the Hollywood’s famous double bills to celebrate its 75th anniversary, featuring the new thriller The American and the classic Casablanca.

To show Casablanca at the anniversary, the Fairleighs had to contact Warner Bros, the studio that made the movie. The studio sent one of the original 1943 copies.

The flickering black and white revealed the classic connection the minute it hit the screen.

Nostalgia may just be enough to keep the Hollywood alive.

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