News Column

Big screen has big problem; Theater needs to raise funds for digital projector or lose ability to show latest films

October 15, 2013


Oct. 15--Monday marked the last time in the foreseeable future that the Colusa Theatre will be showing the latest in Hollywood films.

For years now, movie producers in Hollywood have been pushing for filmmakers and theaters alike to change from the long-used 35mm film to a digital format.

The cost of installing a new digital projector for the one-screen theater could run more than $50,000, theater owner Mark Wilkinson said.

"The theater has really only been able to pay its own bills for the last five years. It really hasn't been making money," he said. "There was an offer for all theaters, mainly geared toward independent theaters, where digital projector manufacturers offered incentives for changing over. It was actually a very great, generous offer, but it just wasn't viable for the economics of this theater."

But Wilkinson isn't giving up: On Nov. 2, the theater will be hosting a kickoff party for a campaign to "crowdsource" the funds for getting the equipment it needs.

The event will be catered by Tacos El Amigo and feature a live performance by Colusa County's own Highway 20 Band. The theater will be auctioning off movie and theater memorabilia -- large and small.

"Several theaters in big cities and small towns have been very successful with this type of fundraising," Wilkinson said. "I was almost ready to kind of let it go out quietly, but a friend of mine talked to me and made the point, 'If the community is interested in this, then why not try it?'"

Luckily, for those members of the community who hold the historical theater dear to them, Wilkinson agreed.

In the meantime, the doors will remain open for rentals in an effort to raise funds for the conversion.

"A private group can rent the place as if it were a giant living room," Wilkinson said. "It will remain open and available to the community, including watching a movie with your friends. You can bring in a Blu-ray and we can put it up on the screen."

Making ends meet

Wilkinson also owns the bowling alley and has often been reliant on that business' success to make up for shortcomings at the theater. He figured out a formula to keep the theater open through the recession, and has continued to operate even with rising competition from home theaters.

"It was a narrowly escaped disaster in the fall of 2010 (after a dismal summer movie season) in the middle of the recession. I've pushed it forward as far as I can hoping for better times, but between the competition from home theaters and now this ..." he said. "Basically, the theater could have existed indefinitely if 35mm prints continued. As it stands, I just can't justify taking on any more debt.

"Although there are some 35mm films still being released, at this point, it's been over a year since the first time I couldn't show a popular movie," Wilkinson said.

While the theater has weathered similar challenges -- such as when it upgraded its surround sound system in 1999 for "Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace" and had to change sound readers within the projectors in 2003-04 -- the cost of keeping up with the state of the art was much less then, he said.

"First, the economy was in good shape then. Second, the changes were at most -- for cost -- only 25 percent of what we're looking at today," Wilkinson said.

End of an era

While the cost and efficiency of the distribution of digital films is an improvement over its 35mm film counterparts, Wilkinson is not convinced that the quality of digital film has yet to reach the 35mm's level of picture quality.

"This is a personal opinion, but 35mm film has improved drastically over the years. I don't think digital projection is at that point yet. I think that 35mm will become the 70mm of the past," Wilkinson said. "I think it will be limited to 10-12 theaters across the country at best. As a small theater, that is no longer an option (for us)."

He said he will miss the process of putting together sections of 35mm to piece together an entire film.

"(The process) is kind of neat. I've been able to show a few of the people who have worked here how the process works," Wilkinson said. "I tell them, 'You're it.' There won't be many people who know how to do that anymore. It's a fun process. It's not perfect; there is a little bit of art to it."

Shown movies since 1931

If there is one thing the Colusa Theatre has been since it first began to show movies, it is resilient. And owner Mike Wilkinson is optimistic the single-screen theater will once again weather the challenges of the changing times.

"This theater has been a movie theater since 1931. It survived a couple years of the Depression, and has weathered many, many storms in the past. It made it through the advent of television. Before broadcast news TV, this is where people in the town would come for their news. It's seen the rise and fall of black and white TV, cable, VCRs, video stores, book stores. ... It's seen all of this and stood through all of it," Wilkinson said.

"I think in the long term, there is always going to be a demand for a social gathering place such as this one, for people to come together and have a sort of shared experience when they see a show," he said. "I want to stress that through all this time, the theater has been an important gathering point for this community and that I owe a lot of thanks to the community and good friends for their support."


(c)2013 the Colusa County Sun-Herald (Colusa, Calif.)

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