The Cable Car Cinema and Café was opened in 1976 by Ray Bilodeau and has been providing Rhode Island with high quality, independent films since. In 2008, the theater changed ownership. Daniel Kamil and Emily Steffian have owned and operated the Cable Car since then, and they have maintained the uniqueness that has made Cable Car a beloved RI institution for more than 35 years.
The one thing that sticks with most people is the couches; a wonderfully distinctive detail that separates Cable Car from other independent theaters and especially from any corporate multiplex.
My memories of the place are a bit more quixotic.
My parents were the musicians playing in between films on Saturday nights. I was the one passing around the hat for change. This was the late 1980s when the couches and loveseats were still fabric. At times I was allowed to stay as they went over to Stone Soup Coffee House where they were volunteers. Sitting on a couch watching those films, sometimes the same film twice, I was in awe. I saw Bicycle Thieves, Hairspray, and Mystery Train. I wasn’t even sure what I was watching, but I knew I needed more of it.
My parents are now well-known musicians, and I am a film educator. The Cable Car didn’t only spark the young filmophile in me, but also facilitated the careers of many up-and-coming musicians, artists, and filmmakers.
On February 20, the Cable Car Cinema launched a Kickstarter Campaign to assist them in the upgrade to a DCI-compliant digital projection system. This is something that has challenged smaller independent theaters in the last couple of years. An expensive, yet necessary, conversion ensures theaters stay relevant in the continually changing digital age. Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) is owned by the six major motion picture studios: The Walt Disney Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, and Warner Bros. In July 2005, they issued the first version of the Digital Cinema System Specification. What theaters have to do is seemingly comparable to you switching your home theater system over to Blu-ray format, though much more expensive.
Here’s the rub: Digital distribution of movies saves money for film distributors, not exhibitors. Printing a feature film can cost $1,500 to $2,500, so making thousands of prints for a wide-release movie can cost millions of dollars. In contrast, the same film can be stored on a hard drive for $150. With several hundred movies distributed every year, the industry saves billions of dollars. The digital cinema conversion process hasn’t happened overnight; in fact, in some places it stalled altogether at first. Many exhibitors refused to purchase the equipment to replace their projectors since the savings would be seen by distribution companies rather than by theaters themselves. Since then, folks have been forced to comply. Film prints have become an ever-dwindling minority in theatrical releases, so theaters truly have no choice. If they want to stay in business and remain relevant, they must change their equipment over.
Going digital, as it were, is not necessarily a good thing. Many filmmakers have fought the conversion, citing an inferior quality. Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Stephen Spielberg are just three. Others, like David Lynch, have truly embraced digital, choosing to shoot solely on it.
A lot of this harkens back to similar changes in the early days of the film industry. In 1926, talking pictures became a reality. Some thought it depraved, many more embraced the new technology. Film studios had to change over all of their equipment, which was quite costly. The result was that many smaller studios went out of business or, even worse, had to get into bed with the larger studios’ fat cats, taking out huge loans to subsidize the conversion.
Call it survival of the ‘fattest’ where the rich get richer and the less fortunate, independent working class gets the proverbial shaft. Either way, we are looking the digital age square in the face and we either have to accept its friend request or be forgotten like dial-up, the Nickelodeon, and unsliced bread.