Why Theater Owners Aren't Happy About Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' Film Initiative

IMAX Interstellar Poster - H 2014
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

IMAX Interstellar Poster - H 2014

"It makes no sense to step back in time," says one exhibitor

After spending millions to convert their cinemas to digital at Hollywood's behest, theaters are being asked to roll back the clock — that is, if they want early access to Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain.

On Wednesday, Paramount and Warner Bros. said theaters still equipped to project 35mm and 70mm film will get Nolan's Interstellar two days early, on Nov. 5, including 41 Imax locations. Many cinemas are bringing in film projectors to play the film, including TCL's Chinese Imax theater in Los Angeles. Some 240 theaters in 77 markets are participating, including 41 Imax locations.

"This devalues what we've done," said Joe Paletta, CEO and founder of Spotlight Theatres, a small chain in Georgia that is now all-digital. "I can't afford to get the projectors out of the warehouse for two days, and I don't even have anyone to operate them." 

Read more 'Interstellar' Trailer Reveals the Movie's Mission

Nolan, who has a strong relationship with exhibitors, is a fierce advocate of film, and he's got enough clout with studios to make his passion a reality, but theater owners say the Interstellar experiment sends a confusing message. Nearly all of the country's cinemas have been converted to digital as Hollywood studios cease sending film prints. Earlier this year, Paramount became the first studio to stop distributing film, with the caveat that it might send some film prints in certain instances.

Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said the decision to release Interstellar in film is about encouraging the moviegoing experience, period. In 2011, the studio opened Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol five days earlier in Imax to highlight that format. It also generated intense word of mouth (the film went on to become the top-grossing film in the franchise).

"Interstellar plays spectacularly, and we have a filmmaker who loves film, so we wanted to take a moment to showcase film as an important part of our heritage," said Moore, adding that Nolan will host a special community on Google exploring all formats, and not just film.

But Foothills Cinemas president and CEO Byron Berkley, whose company operates four theaters in Texas, agrees with Paletta. "It makes no sense to step back in time," he said.

For smaller exhibitors like Paletta and Berkley, the digital transition was especially daunting from a financial perspective, although the Hollywood studios have helped to defray some of the cost through virtual print fees.

Read more Christopher Nolan Talks 'Interstellar,' Plugs Film Over Digital in Hollywood Reporter Q&A

Nolan shot Interstellar using a combination of 35mm film and 65mm Imax film.

Of those theaters getting Interstellar earlier, 189 locations will play 35mm prints, while 10 will play 70mm prints. The 41 Imax theaters will play enhanced 70mm prints.