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Switch to digital projection endangering small theaters

– A batch of teenagers are the first customers to begin trickling into Van Wert Cinemas a little before 6 p.m.

As they stand among the wafting aroma of popcorn and buy their tickets and soda, a weary Jim Boyd is in a room overlooking Screen 2 of his five-screen theater, punching buttons on a black machine with blinking lights.

This machine – a newly procured digital projector – cost Boyd a lot of money and took him across the country to find, but he knows it’s the way to keep his business open.

And whether they like it or not, many movie theater owners are following suit, or soon will be.

With the major movie studios phasing out traditional film – possibly completely by next year – the digital projector is quickly becoming the future of the cinema business.

And going digital is proving an expensive and taxing enterprise for small independent theater owners like Boyd, some of whom are struggling with the upgrade, which can cost upward of $85,000 a screen.

“It’s used,” says Boyd, pointing to the projector for Screen 2. “I’m making it with used equipment. That’s the only way financially I can make the conversion, and used equipment is hard to find.”

‘Do or die for us’

Pressure for theaters to convert to digital projectors began with the 1999 release of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” according to Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners.

Corcoran’s group, an advocate for theater owners, helped quell an immediate switch to digital projectors partly to give theater owners time to make the transition.

It also helped the industry to set agreed-upon technical standards and to create a business model for how digital movies would be shown, according to Corcoran.

So far, roughly 80 percent of the screens in 60 percent of theaters nationwide have been converted to digital projectors, Corcoran said.

“This has been sort of a decade-long process,” Corcoran said. “The issue that smaller theaters face is that basically they’re expected to convert. Whether they have the capital or not, that’s a business issue.”

But now the country’s major movie studios are on the cusp of abandoning 35-millimeter film – which has been used for roughly a century – by 2013, according to Corcoran and other reports.

And while many of the chain theaters – such as Rave Cinemas and Carmike Cinemas in Fort Wayne – have the resources to make the switch, other, smaller theaters are apparently in peril.

Historic and small theaters all across the country are asking residents for help or holding fundraisers to raise the money to make the switch.

The Fargo Theatre in Fargo, N.D., is asking its fans for $200,000 to stay open and has so far raised $125,900 toward that goal, according to its website.

The Historic Onarga Theater in Minnesota is selling T-shirts to save the cinema, having special showings of classic movies and urging people to advertise in order to raise money.

Other theaters are hosting an array of events, such as taco dinners, parties and galas in attempts to get needed cash.

And soon, the Cinema Center in downtown Fort Wayne may have to do the same.

“We’re in the beginning stages of planning a capital fund campaign,” said Jonah Crismore, the new executive director for the one-screen art-house theater. “We’re going to need the community support to make this happen.”

“It’ll be do or die for us,” he added.

The Cinema Center has existed since 1976 and has been at its current location, at the corner of East Berry and Clay streets, since 1991.

Crismore said that while the switch to digital is needed, he and other theater officials have concerns.

“Thirty-five millimeter has not changed a whole lot since its invention, really,” Crismore said. “With digital, they’re already making upgrades. So, is this something we’re going to have to do every five or 10 years?

“And where is the money going to come from for those upgrades?”

Studio control

Not every theater owner is on board with the switch to digital projectors.

Dana Thompson, the proprietor of The Strand in Angola, has been in the movie business since he started running projectors as a 10-year-old more than 50 years ago.

And he has no plans yet to convert his one-screen theater to digital.

“There are thousands of theater owners in the same boat that don’t like what’s going on, and we’ve been dragging our feet for 10 years,” he said.

For Thompson, it’s not only the equipment that’s a problem – along with a projector, an upgrade requires computer servers, a new sound system and in some cases a new screen – but the conversion also gives movie studios more power.

With film, Thompson said he can preview films he shows to give customers a better idea of its content. He said he could also cut out previews he finds inappropriate. Thompson also said he likes being able to check the film’s quality to make sure there were no problems with the print.

With digital, he cannot preview a movie without paying a movie studio for that particular showing. And if they include him 30 previews, he has to show them all.

“They’re controlling the message 100 percent,” he said.

Plus, the studios are expecting the conversion at a time when fewer people are going to movies, Thompson said, making it doubly hard for independent theaters to survive.

But, Thompson said, he doesn’t believe the conversion will be complete by 2013 as the movie studios believe.

As evidence, he said that he recently picked up a film from a large downtown Indianapolis theater that has 10 screens – of which only three or four have been converted.

“A lot of people are talking about the independents, asking them, ‘Are you ready?’ ” he said. “Well, the big guys, they aren’t ready, either.”

This weekend, Thompson was showing the much anticipated and heavily marketed “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2,” on traditional 35-millimeter film – just as he’s shown every movie before.

“People can’t tell the darn difference anyway,” he said. “I think the quality is maybe 15 percent different (with digital).”

Movie history relics

In the lobby of Van Wert Cinemas sits an authentic Mitchell 35-millimeter camera, the type used to film the classic films of yesteryear.

The camera is Jim Boyd’s prized movie artifact. And now, roped off from the public, it is the last vestige of how movies were once made and shown.

Last Sunday, Boyd, who began operating movie projectors as a teen in Fayetteville, W.Va., 50-some years ago, played his final movie on film – “Paranormal Activity 4.”

A week before that showing, he had spent several days searching and scouring through Arizona looking for used digital projectors and servers.

He rolled back into town with a van full of equipment foreign to him, equipment he knew he needed if his cinema was to survive.

Two days before that final film showing, as the first batch of teenagers began coming into the theater on a Friday evening, he was upstairs fidgeting with one of his newly acquired digital projectors. A few feet away were the last two film projectors he had yet to replace, giant behemoths that, like his camera displayed in the lobby, were now relics of movie history.

“A few years ago, I could’ve probably gotten $1,000 or $2,000 out of them,” Boyd said. “Now, I’d be lucky if I get a couple meals out of them.”

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