LA's Classic Film Series 'Last Remaining Seats' Faces the Digital Steamroller

Features
by Aljean Harmetz
May 31, 2013 11:30 AM
2 Comments
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Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in "To Catch a Thief"
“Last Remaining Seats” is the title of the Los Angeles Conservancy’s yearly classic film series.  This year, as the series begins on Saturday (June 1) with a sold-out screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief,” the title is more than a little ironic.

“The steamroller is coming down the mountain,” says Bud Coffey, technical director of the series.  He is referring to the digital steamroller that is crushing 35 mm film.  “We’re at the same place as 1927-28 when people said, “Those talkies will never last.’”

Coffey is aware of what is coming for classic film series as, month by month, more theaters convert to digital projection.  This year, for the first time, one of the “Last Remaining Seats” movies will be shown digitally. “My Fair Lady” will screen on Blu-ray on Wednesday June 12 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion which does not have film projection.

According to David Bordwell, author of the e-book “Pandora’s Digital Box,” there were 80 digital screens in the United States in 2004. By 2006, there were more than 1500. As of May 1, per NATO figures, out of some 40,000 screens in U.S., 34,896 are digital--about 86% of the total--while in Norway, Belgium, France and the UK theaters are almost totally digital.

“Last Remaining Seats,” which is now in its 27th year, will be able to show some movies in 35 mm next year, says Coffey, because the “old downtown theaters are fine” since they show too few movies to have made the expensive conversion to digital. This year “All About Eve” (which is also sold out) will screen at the Los Angeles Theatre on June 19, “Ben-Hur” at the Orpheum on June 26 and “La Bamba at the Palace on June 5. The series ends with two screenings of “Casablanca” at the Saban Theatre on June 29.

Last Remaining Seats provides about 40% of the revenue that the non-profit Conservancy earns from its various programs. The series was started in 1987 partly to call attention to and help preserve the city’s historic movie palaces.

Other classic film series are also doing well. The cable network TCM, whose fourth annual Classic Film Festival began April 25, had a “world premiere” screening of a restored Buster Keaton silent comedy, “The General.”  Cleverly marketed, these series accompany each film with a star of the movie being shown or a celebrity with some link to the movie.  The American Film Institute’s April series paired Peter Fonda with “Easy Rider” and Sidney Poitier with “In the Heat of the Night.”  TCM chose to show “On Golden Pond” this year because Jane Fonda was putting her handprints in concrete next to her father Henry Fonda’s prints at the Chinese Theatre.  “On Golden Pond” was the only movie in which the two co-starred.

But, classic film or not, the future is already hovering. The Nuart, which has been having midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for about 30 years, is now showing the movie digitally. About six months ago Fox required the theater to send its 35mm print back to the studio’s vault.


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2 Comments

  • Anne Thompson | June 1, 2013 12:05 AMReply

    Thanks David, duly corrected.

  • David Bordwell | May 31, 2013 6:36 PMReply

    I'm happy to be cited in this piece, but I should point out an error. There aren't 40,000 digital screens in the US; that's close to the total number of screens. As of 1 May, the National Association of Theatre Owners estimates that there are 34,896 digital screens--about 86% of the total.

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