When you see a film in one of the Triangle’s many theaters, what you’re seeing might not actually be a “film” at all.

In recent years, local theaters and film programmers have found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to get 35mm prints, often relying instead on files called Digital Cinema Packages provided on hard drives from movie studios.

“It’s kind of a pivotal moment for film exhibitors right now, and it snuck up on us,” says Laura Boyes, the film curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art and an occasional INDY contributor. “Last summer, we were able to pick out everything we wanted on a film print, and this summer, basically nothing. That’s how quickly it happened.”

While some local film programmers say that DCPs have unique advantages over costly prints, others aren’t thrilled by the decline of the classic format and the expense of converting to a new one that could also become obsolete.

Bill Peebles is the president of Ambassador Entertainment, which owns the Raleigh theaters Mission Valley Cinema, The Rialto Theatre, Colony Theatres and Six Forks Station Cinema. Over the past few years, he’s had to convert all 14 screens at these theaters to handle DCPs at an estimated cost of $910,000. Several screens still also use traditional projection for some films, including the Rialto’s weekly 35mm screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“Bill has gone to the poorhouse!” Peebles quips. “But if you want to stay in business, you convert. Hollywood has stopped making 35mm prints for all practical purposes. The whole thing with digital conversion is that it saves Hollywood money.”

Jim Carl, senior director at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, regularly programs older films for the theater’s various festivals and “Retro” series. Getting 35mm prints of certain films, he says, became increasingly difficult as studios grew reluctant to send out easily damaged older prints or take on the expense of striking new ones from the negatives.

“I’m told that it can cost several thousand dollars for one print struck off the original negative,” Carl says. “Then the print is usually rented to a theater for a screening fee of $250 to $300. If it’s going to cost a studio $5,000 or $6,000 to strike a new print, they’d have to rent it about 22 times to recoup their expenses. And what’s the likelihood that a print won’t get scratched, that reels won’t get lost, that it won’t be mishandled by a projectionist or delivery company?” These figures apply to older movies. For new releases, significantly higher screening fees may involve a percentage of the box office.

Creating a digital copy of a film, designed to work a limited number of times for a particular theater, is considerably less expensive. Carl says most studios charge him $50 to $75 for the cost of the DCP, plus the regular screening fees. “Now I have no fear that I’m handling the last surviving 35mm print and I’m going to accidentally shred it and be stuck with a $10,000 bill from the studio,” Carl says.

DCPs have allowed Carl to program a number of older films that weren’t otherwise available. He says moviegoers are often unable to tell the difference, praising a “beautiful print” that was really digital. But he’s also heard complaints that a print is “too good” from viewers who miss the “snap, crackle and pop” of old filmsthe telltale scratches, flickers and other signs of aging.

Aesthetically, DCPs are controversial in the film community. Purists prefer the visual qualities of old-school celluloid. “Film is the best way to capture an image and project that image,” director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) recently told ScreenRant.com. “I’m in favor of any technological innovation, but it will always have to exceed what came before. None of the new technologies have done that.”

Other veteran directors prefer the quality of DCPs, with The Exorcist director William Friedkin recently telling TheDissolve.com that DCPs are “the finest reproductive system they’ve yet come up with.” Opinion among film presenters is also divided.

Like Carl, Boyes tries to program 35mm whenever she can, but she’s been excited to gain access to things previously unavailable on celluloid, such as Hitchcock’s early silent films. And she says the quality is sometimes indistinguishable: “[The Hitchcock DCPs] even incorporate the slight flicker of a print.”

Though casual viewers saturated with digital home entertainment may not notice or care, Peebles calls digital pictures “damn ugly. A black-and-white nitrate film in DCPpersonally, I think it looks fake.” He notes that while some older films not previously available on 35mm prints are on DCP, many are not, making it harder to get unconverted films for which the studios are no longer renting out prints.

There’s also the issue of how digital conversions will fare in the future. “Digital formats change all the time, and I worry there is not going to be any archival record of films that are being made and distributed on digital,” says Boyes. “We all have collections of VHS tapes that don’t look so hot. I can tell you from working on the Full Frame committee that video footage from the ’80s and ’90s transferred to digital looks horrible.

“There need to be precautions taken so that this footage can be transferred as formats change,” Boyes continues. “We don’t want to lose as big a chunk of our film history as [some studios] did by dumping their film libraries into the ocean at the beginning of the talking era. It could be a very similar situation.”

And what will happen to 35mm projectors when parts to repair them are no longer manufactured? “In five or 10 years, will you be able to get replacement parts for older equipment?” Peebles wonders.

Whether on celluloid or hard drives, local film programmers hope to continue their success in screening older movies the way they were meant to be seen: on a big screen in a theater with an audience, even in the age of Netflix on demand. “These things were meant to be seen with other people,” Boyes says, “and it’s important to keep people going to the movies.”

Carl agrees. “Whatever gets them out of the house and into a theater,” he says, “I’m for it.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Reel talk.”