Small theaters face challenge as industry goes digital

For hundreds of movie theaters around the country, the signal of the end to celluloid film came in the form of a letter from a major distributor dated Nov. 9, 2011.

“For those exhibitors who have not yet taken the necessary steps to digital conversion for some or all of their theaters, we remind you that the date is fast approaching when Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Searchlight will adopt the digital format as the only format in which it will theatrically distribute its films,” according to the letter signed by Chris Aronson and Shela DeLoach.

The major chains have already completed the conversion; many of the smaller and independent theaters are struggling to cope with the ultimatum.

A year before, the film company had written to strongly recommend that exhibitors begin to take steps to convert their theaters to digital projection. But this later announcement left hundreds of small theaters scrambling to decide whether to purchase the expensive digital equipment that would allow them to keep their doors open. Although it gave no specific time for the change, it did state that the expected date “will be within the next year or so.”

“If you want to be able to play the types of movies that generate business, you have to make the change,” said Jonathan McNeal, who has managed The Neon movie theater in downtown Dayton for the past 11 years. “There will be huge savings to the distributors who won’t have to spend thousands of dollars on 3,000 prints that will just get scratched and thrown away.”

McNeal says Searchlight, the distributor, has always treated his theater “really well,” sometimes even giving The Neon exclusive starts to some films that eventually go wider.

But the challenge, he says, is for smaller theaters to come up with the funds for new equipment. Although the distributors offered “deals” through third-party “integrators” or direct Virtual Print Fee (VPF) contributions (similar to a rebate program), McNeal says the conditions attached to those types of arrangements wouldn’t allow The Neon to maintain its community-driven mission and to schedule local film festivals and special screenings.

Twentieth Century Fox, contacted for this story, wrote to say no-one from their organization was available to discuss this topic.

McNeal is planning to show his last 35-mm film at a fundraiser on Sunday, Oct. 14, and is hoping to raise $25,000. “The Neon Conversion” will mark the milestone with appetizers and drinks, an auction of movie memorabilia with local ties and a screening of “Amelie.”

The theater will then close for four days to change formats and usher in its new technology. It has already purchased the necessary equipment.

Though he’s sad to see the end of film and his 35-mm projectors, McNeal says he is excited about the future and the new options the technology will allow.

“We’ll have hearing-assisted devices, and we’ll have the ability to do closed captions for the hearing impaired,” he said. “And I know some of our customers prefer subtitles when accents are hard to discern.”

Mike and Michelle Snell, owners of the Englewood Cinema, are also making the best of a tough situation. When they bought the theater in 2008, they already knew digital was on its way.

“I’m not happy about it, but we don’t have any other choice,” says Snell, whose two kids help sell tickets and concessions. “It’s either convert to digital or close up by the end of 2013.”

A life-long film enthusiast who loves little theaters, Snell says he’ll wait until the last minute to make the change. He’s hoping the price for the equipment will come down in the meantime.

“It was about $90,000 when theaters start putting them in,” he said. “Now it’s about $65,000 and I’m hoping it will drop even more.”

His old equipment, he says, will then become worthless.

Jenny Cowperthwaite, executive director of The Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs, says she and her non-profit theater’s board are determined to make the best of the situation. They have launched a capital campaign and plan to renovate the 180-seat theater that dates back to 1929.

In addition to the new digital projector, server and sound, the $475,000 project will include new seats, new screens, an ADA accessible entrance, bathrooms and seating, and will improve the incline of the auditorium floor. The theater, which will be completely gutted, will close for at least two months in the spring. Donors can name a seat for $500.

But Cowperthwaite, who has been at The Little art since 1978, says she’ll miss running the Italian projectors that date back to the 1940s and 35-mm film.

“I like the way it looks on the screen, the sound of the film going through the projectors — especially when you work up in the booth,” she said. “I like the clickity-clack of the sprockets going through the gears. I would liken it to the sound of horses hooves pulling a wagon. And then, the automobile.”

But Chuck Derry, professor emeritus of motion pictures at Wright State University, says there are a variety of reasons that the switch to digital makes sense.

“A key economic reason for the switch is that distributors can no longer afford to make the large number of prints required to open a film around the country at the same time,” he said. “Many years ago a distributor would make a certain number of copies, open in the major cities, and —depending on reviews— send the prints around to the smaller towns. Increasingly, we’re getting to be a smaller country so everyone knows about a new film at the same time.”

It’s also expensive, he says, to transport the heavier reels.

He says prints these days are much more subject to wear and tear and dirt and scratches than they were in the past when a union projectionist would care for the films properly. As for aesthetics, Derry believes digital projection increasingly has the capacity to be much better than the traditional 35-mm projection.

“Purists may talk about slight differences in components of richness or quality of colors,” he said, “but the technology keeps changing and improving.”

Derry compares the current situation to the 1920s, when theaters were required to add sound equipment.

“Sound had been invented a long time before and people wanted it, so all of the theaters had to make the transition.”

Derry says if managers make their establishments comfortable places that patrons will enjoy, movie theaters will continue to play a role in the life of the country.

“People still like going out to a movie,” he says. “They like getting out of their house.”

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