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November 27, 2013

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Indiana theaters among last digital holdouts

TERRE HAUTE (AP) — The projectionist behind the first movie shown in the Indiana Theatre nearly 92 years ago would likely feel right at home in that same booth today.

The technology of 35-millimeter film remains virtually unchanged since the Indiana's massive screen first lit up with the silent picture, "Cappy Ricks." It's still 34.98 millimeters (or 1.377 inches) wide, four perforations per frame per side, and 16 frames per foot, according to standards adopted in 1909 by the International Cinematographers Guild.

"Cappy Ricks" came to theaters such as the Indiana in six reels, according to the International Movie Data Base, keeping the projectionist hopping, feeding the segments through the projector, and rewinding it all for the next showing. That flick played on the Indiana's opening night, Jan. 28, 1922. Except for the absence of sound, its delivery to an audience would be virtually identical in 2013. A few innovations in spooling the film eventually eliminated the need for an ever-present projectionist, but the 35mm film endured through the first decade of the 21st century.

Few technologies last, largely intact, for 100 years.

"Some people are shocked that it's still being used," Brent Barnhart, who owns the Paris Theater in that Illinois town, told the Tribune-Star.His venue, which opened as the Lincoln Theatre in 1924, continues to use 35mm film projection.

"As old as (the 35mm format) is, there wasn't really a need for change," Barnhart added. "It's brilliant technology."

Change has come, though, after more than a century.

The Paris Theater, The Indiana and Meadows theaters in Terre Haute, and the Walnut Theater in Brazil are among just 9 percent of American cinema houses not yet converted to digital projection systems.

All are preparing for the transition. The push toward digital by the movie-making studios dates back to 1999, when George Lucas wanted to release "Star Wars" on digital, even though just 100 U.S. theaters possessed the capability, Patrick Corcoran, chief communications officer for the National Association of Theater Owners, said by telephone from their offices in North Hollywood, Calif. The shift from 35mm to digital grew gradually before slowing as the recession hit. The pace has quickened since 2009.

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