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I know that in earlier times, feature films were distributed on large format tape, and these were what were distributed to theaters for showing. A given feature film would have several reels. The theater would have two projectors and a projectionist would need to queue up the next reel and start it at the correct time.

Are feature films still distributed to theaters in this fashion? Or do modern theaters now use digital projectors, such as what might be used in a home theater? (By digital I mean DVD/Bluray)

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Once, I was in a movie theatre and it was going to show The Hobbit. The first five minutes of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 showed. So, digital? –  The Wobbuffet Jun 30 at 15:01
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Please don't link an UN-named YouTube video showing gratuitous violence as a comment. You could have provided the name of the video in your link. I assume you were attempting to be humorous and do not believe you succeeded very well. –  CGCampbell Jul 2 at 13:49
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Whilst there are some cinemas that still retain use of 35mm projectors, it's fair to say that these are only used for special events. Modern cinema, by which I mean the industry that distributes and exhibits mainstream content (so any new releases), are exclusively distributed in digital format.

In early 2002, Hollywood sought to standardize this technology for the incredible advantages it possessed. Digital projectors have been industry standard since 2005 in the UK, but much earlier in America and China. Due to its cinematic heritage and relative size, the UK is almost always used as the 'control' in rolling out cinematic technologies. It is usually measured as an experiment, and just as the introduction of sound, colour and 3D cinemas required refits and refurbishment, this is now happening with digital distribution.

The rest of the world is moving in exactly the same direction, but with different levels of immersion in the cinematic process.

Many cinemas use a system called DCP which is literally a USB pen that gets shipped around inside a case. It improves accountability on behalf of cinema-pirates, as each Pen has a certain number of licences on it. A slightly more old fashioned variation of this is large portable hard-drives, but these are being phased out of circulation too.

A DCP is simply a file that requires activation from a licence. The DCP is signed for by the cinema, and then the projectionist is given the licence activation code to allow the content to be played. Some cinemas have a licence retainer, or master licence for content.

Because most multiplex cinemas are part of an exhibition chain, they are typically less vigilant in safeguarding their content, and will handle the management of their content internally, negating such stringent protection.

Increasingly, satellite technology is being explored in order to reduce the cost of distribution (which has already more than halved in the past 10 years). Under satellite systems, the film is literally downloaded from a secure server and the film is activated for use via satellite; projectors can even be controlled remotely through the satellite, which centralizes the entire process externally.

This is a method that has been spearheaded in the UK by such projects as National Theatre Live and Opera Live. Whilst they do broadcast globally, they remain a minority interest for exhibitors (although a growing one, due to their success). The legacy of these projects will not, however, come from their content but by their method of distribution. Even now, many distributors are promoting their ease of use as leverage to persuade developers to pursue satellite distribution as it reduces the overheads dramatically.

It's fair to say that most if not all cinemas are now fitted with digital projectors, and within the next 20 years (as they become satellite compatible) we will probably see the extinction of the projectionist: they'll become something that's wheeled out on special occasions to demonstrate a vestigial technology, to show off its novelty. That's more or less the case now, actually.

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Oooo Downvote! Drive by or explanation? –  John Smith Optional Jul 2 at 9:18
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Former projectionist here, let me weigh in on what's happened in the last 7 to 8 years.

A bit of background: I started working projectors for my local theater in February 2007, and my last night was in March 2011. I no longer work this position because they transitioned to being completely digital, and I was among the first cut as I was only in one or two nights a week. Over the next 4 to 5 months the rest of the projection staff was gradually cut as the transition to 100% digital took place.

Alright, so now that we have that out of the way, I'll tell you what I know.

When I started, film was still distributed on 35mm reels. Depending on the company that pressed the movie to film, it would come in either a large, cardboard box, or several metal cans. The boxes could hold about 6 to 7 reels, the cans could hold about 3 reels.

Now, "Back in the day," my dad also worked projectors for a bit. This would be back in the 70s, and you would have two projectors for each theater. He'd load up reel one, start it, then he'd wait to see the cue mark, or "Cigarette burn," in the upper right corner, he'd start up reel two on the other projector, and when the second cue mark appeared, he'd cut over to this other projector. There's a reference to this in Fight Club, and it's completely legit. You can also see an example of this process in Inglorious Basterds, as Shoshana runs the Nazi propaganda film towards the end of the movie.

Flash forward about 35 years, and when I started working projectors you no longer had to do this. Cue marks would still appear in the upper right corner, but in the last 15 to 20 years of film still being on 35mm, things transitioned to what's called a platter system, which is why my theater used.

Here's what that looked like:

enter image description here

Rather than cut projectors between reels, we could now build the movie into one large reel to be fed through the projector. The film would "pay out" from one platter, and "rewind" on any empty platter. There were three platters so we could show two movies on one screen, though only one movie at a time, for example: a kid's movie during the day, and a R-rated film at night. Each week as movies would move to smaller and smaller screens in the building, we'd also have to move the prints from one projector to another. Some movies were so large they had to be broken down by a few reels, then put back together (Lord of the Rings for example). Each reel was about 15 to 20 minutes of film. We could easily tell each individual reel on the larger reels because they'd form a sort of tree ring pattern, making it easy to identify problems like, "There's a large scratch halfway through reel 4 that needs to be changed out."

How did we piece the movies together? Very clear tape. I'm not even kidding. Your entire movie was held together by tape. We'd use a special table to build the movies, that would pull the film off the reel and onto the platter. You'd put a small film ring in the middle for any pre-show ads and trailers, then would build the movie onto that (the small reel on the lowest platter in the picture above is what a trailer reel might look like, though a bit smaller in most cases). You'd start with reel one, and continue until you were finished.

Further, movies were either flat (1.85:1 aspect ratio), or scope (2.35:1 aspect ratio). Depending on the movie, we'd simply rotate the lenses in the projector, and slide a plate into place behind the lens to channel the bulb's light directly into the frame of the film. We'd then have to walk into the theater and adjust the masking to change it from 1.85 to 2.35 or back the other way, depending on the movie being shown.

All in all, the process could take a few hours. Busy summer weekends could take as many as 4 hours to build all the movies.

My theater also had rollers setup to allow us to "sync" single prints of a movie between two or more projectors. All the projectors were networked, and we could put them in sync groups so when the movie was started on the first projector in the group, it would start all the other projectors in the same group. We'd thread a single print through 2, 3, or even more projectors for midnight shows, or if demand for a movie was really high. This way we could show movies on more screens with fewer prints. One of my last summers there we ran all our projectors, over 15 in total, on 4 prints of the latest Harry Potter film. Set some sales records that night, and we bit our nails the whole time.

When a movie left the theater, we'd tear the movie back down to its individual reels, put them back in their respective box or can, and leave them at one of two areas of the theater (depending on the company that sent them) for some guy to pick up. They might go to a second run theater, they might go back to the studio.

Those days are long gone, though, and nearly everyone is using digital projectors now. The first projector our theater got was around the time Journey to the Center of the Earth came out, and was also our first 3D projector. We eventually added two more over the next 1.5 years, and finally the decision was made to go all digital. Early on, the movies would arrive on small hard drives and we'd load them onto the computer for each digital projector, and unlock it with a key on a USB drive sent with the film. Now they can load the movies onto a central server, and serve it up to each projector based on need, along with pre-show ads and trailers. Everything can be fully automated now. Digital projectors are also capable of showing movies in 4K resolution or higher. Contrary to popular belief, digital movies are NOT run off a DVD or Blu-ray, because the amount of data for a full resolution film with completely uncompressed audio is far too large to be held on a single disc.

Sorry if my answer is long winded, but it's a part of the industry I miss and could provide a good amount of detail on to really flesh out any questions you may have regarding the old way things were done. I'd be happy to flesh out any bits anyone has questions on, though I can't speak too much about the current state of digital, as it was, "After my time."

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+1. My first theater job was in 1985, and I worked theaters off and on until 1999. I still miss the projection booth. I remember we had several people that "had to work late" the night we built and previewed "The Matrix". –  JohnP Jun 30 at 14:34
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Yeah, we used to, "Quality test," movies early as well. ;) Thing is we really were checking for quality, and did manage to find a problem now and then (bad splice, damaged reel, etc.) What made it fun for me from 2007 to 2011 is some studios would send movies with one can padlocked, usually a big summer blockbuster like Iron Man or Star Trek. We'd call a number at 9AM the day we'd have midnights or start showing it to get the combination to unlock it. Thing is they were just 4 digit tumbler locks, so we could easily sit there and run through all possible combos. :P –  MattD Jun 30 at 14:37
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@MattD, please do! We still need projectionists: it's just that the scope of their occupation has reduced so rapidly its hard to justify their employment from a financial point of view. They're redundant when the tech is working fine, but invaluable when something goes wrong. I once had to watch Dredd-3D out of focus in a multiplex because they didn't have anyone on site that could rack the focus in. I offered to do it, and they wouldn't let me... its one tiny little switch. –  John Smith Optional Jun 30 at 15:01
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Oh man, great story about a movie being out of focus. Sat down to watch How to Train Your Dragon late one night, found out the 3D glasses we had only worked when worn upside down. Grabbed some test pairs we'd had in booth for months, and they had the same problem. Ended up being they set the polarity on the lens wrong when they upgraded it a month prior. Why didn't we notice? The movie shown on the same projector for that preceding month was Clash of the Titans. Word of its bad 3D conversion was so well circulated, everyone thought that was part of it! Not a single complaint! –  MattD Jun 30 at 15:04
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We'd thread a single print through 2, 3, or even more projectors for midnight shows, - my bro is a projectionist and it amazed me when I saw a single reel being fed through three projectors, with a series of pullies and Jerry-rigging to get the film from Point A to Point D via B and C. All gone now with digital of course. –  Mark Henderson Jul 1 at 5:13
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As others have mentioned, celluloid film (35mm, 70mm etc) is now largely obsolete.

As part of the Digital Cinema Initiative, modern movies are now distributed as Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs).

A DCP consists of a bundle of "media exchange format" files (.mxf) for the video and audio as well as .xml files that contain "metadata" about the files in the package.

These files are usually distributed on removable hard drives, USB flash drives or via satellite.

A single feature film is usually in the region of approximately 200 GB of data.

Digital Cinema Packages do not use temporal compression the way formats like BluRay do, and as such, are therefore higher quality. They also usually have a maxresolution of 4096 or 2048 pixels horizontally. Theoretically this allows individual pixels to be visible (when close to a screen), but in practice, digital projection offers far superior image quality due to the absence of imperfections such as dust and scratches which are commonplace on movie film prints.

By and large digital projectors still use Xenon Lamps like their more recent film predecessors, but there is a move towards using laser light as the light source in the future with the intention of reducing the cost of lamps.

As well as providing superior quality, distribution costs are greatly reduced, and because digital cinema packages are strongly encrypted all the way to an audited tamper-proof decoder block inside a digital projector piracy is minimised.

Of course the huge savings that digital brings over film are not passed on from the studios to the cinemas or the cinema-goers who now pay higher ticket prices than ever before.

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No, film projection is a thing of past now. Not only in US, but in most of the countries around the world, the projection system has gone digital with the age.

Nowadays, most of the theatre chains use digital projectors and movies are distributed to them in magnetic hard drives. Primary reason behind this is transition cost. While making and distributing hundreds and thousands of reels cost a good chunk, Hard drives cost merely a fraction of it and distribution is easy as well. Moreover, with film projection, there was always a master copy and other reels were copied from it and even with advanced techniques the quality of film suffered (in a very minor way though), there would always be a haggle in the market over getting a higher standard print. With digital prints, it's a game of ones and zeroes and two prints can be an exact copy of each other.

By today, it's rare to find a theatre running on film projection, not because they have become obsolete quality but because people stopped distributing films.

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