News Column

Last reel: Movie industry's switch to digital hits theaters -- especially small ones -- in the wallet

May 5, 2013


May 05--YORK, Pa -- Melissa DeTota fell in love with the Glen Theatre.

Last summer, her sister introduced her to Glen Rock's single-screen movie house. Built in 1913, when film projectors started to put vaudeville acts out of business, the theater is one of the oldest in the area that still shows films.

"I don't know what it is," DeTota said as she stood outside on a Friday in March. "It's adorable. It's nostalgic."

DeTota checked the theater's Facebook page and saw a 7 p.m. screening of the newly released "Oz the Great and Powerful" for almost half of what she'd pay elsewhere. The Manchester, Md., resident brought her 10-year-old son.

At a quarter to the hour, the lights blinked on, and

the DeTotas entered. The air smelled of popcorn. Old-timey music played softly.

In some ways, not much has changed since the original "Wizard of Oz" hit screens during the summer of 1939. At that time, projectors made movie magic. The word "film" became synonymous with "movie."

But in the age of 24-screen multiplexes, small theaters can't live on nostalgia alone. They'll need to spend thousands to upgrade their equipment, or be forced to end screenings.

During the past few years, film and film projectors -- vital for decades of movie screenings -- have been disappearing, replaced by digital projectors. The change has come gradually, with little fanfare.

So, the casual viewer might have missed the final days of film.


Frank Theatres opened in York Township three years ago this week -- without a film projector.

Manager Kevin Scott said that during its construction, the theater was outfitted with Sony Cinema 4K projectors -- the industry standard and latest in digital technology. It's a better presentation, he said, but most viewers likely won't notice.

Those who are paying attention will notice subtle differences in a movie like "Iron Man 3," which hit theaters early Friday.

Scott said the flying scenes are more crisp in digital.

Things moved slower when 35-millimeter film was the industry standard, said Scott, who's worked in theaters for about two decades.

"There was a lot of training involved," he said, adding that film required maintenance. "Digital eliminated having bad presentations."

Of course, that comes at a price. Each screen and projector costs thousands of dollars. But the up-front expense eliminates other costs.

Theaters work off contracts with studios and distributors, who rent films to movie houses. Instead of shipping film, they email key codes, which a theater worker will load into a computer system to unlock and show a movie.

It means that theaters give up some control. Now studios dictate when and where films are shown because they can track and monitor when and where keys are activated. It's also a way to curb stolen prints and illegal downloads.

Digital, Scott added, is an easier way to preserve movies. Thirty-five millimeter film will degrade over time unless it's stored in a humidity-free vault. It also degrades when it's copied and recopied. Digital can be re-worked, re-mastered and corrected with relative ease.

The original film copy of "Jurassic Park" took some time and effort to convert to 3D for its re-release last month, Scott said.

In the future, studios will be able to re-release movies on demand.


The digital conversion has been in the works for

more than a decade.

Most megaplexes -- which attract crowds and account for a majority of box office revenue -- have gone digital. And a full industry transition could be complete as soon as the end of the year.

Since studios have started to scale back the number of titles they send out on film, smaller movie houses will have to buy costly digital projection equipment -- which can run about $70,000 per screen. If they don't, they'll have to end movie screenings. Or worse.

A year ago, Indiewire, an online resource for independent filmmakers, estimated the digital conversion could shutter 1,000 small theaters across the country.

During Hollywood's golden era in the 1930s and '40s, most small towns and boroughs

in the region boasted a theater or two. At one time, about a dozen movie houses operated in downtown York -- some just a block apart.

As audience bases shifted away from cities in the '60s and '70s, megaplexes sprouted in suburbs. Over time, most old movie houses and historic theaters disappeared. In recent years, some have been saved by civic efforts. Others have been restored and turned into nonprofits.

But the decline has continued. According to The National Association of Theatre Owners, the number of U.S. theaters has fallen from 7,151 in 1995 to 5,331 in 2011.

While one- to three-screen theaters can't compete with megaplexes, some have found loyal audiences by showing arthouse movies and classic films. And now, with the digital conversion bearing down, these theaters have to weigh their value and the value of the films they show against the cost of new equipment.


With no clear deadline from studios, most small theaters agree that 35-millimeter film production will end later this year.

The demand for new equipment has made digital projection a competitive market. Thus, equipment prices have dropped. Max Einhorn of the Elks Theatre in Middletown recently got a quote that it would cost $60,000 to install digital -- about half of an initial $100,000 quote.

But that price tag is still too high for small theaters. So, many have started fundraising campaigns and efforts to draw old and new patrons with special events and cult movie screenings.

In Glen Rock, Fred Strausbaugh, who has run the town's theater for 38 years, is taking the wait-and-see approach. And while he does, he's watched the proposed price of digital equipment drop. But he said the price needs to fall much further to become attainable.

Most small theaters operate with used or old equipment, he added, so if large theater chains upgrade digital systems in the future, small theaters might be able to use the slightly outdated technology.

Deadlines don't matter to The Capitol Theatre in Chambersburg, said manager Linda Boeckman. During a 2006 fundraising campaign, a donor gave the theater money to purchase a digital projector.

Now, the theatre doesn't have to worry about film, which can scratch and tear. But Boeckman said digital doesn't prevent all glitches.

The Capitol's equipment recently stopped working, and the theater shipped it out for repairs. At a couple thousand dollars, the fix was far less expensive than Boeckman feared. Once more, the theater's original film projector from the 1920s sits alone in the projection booth.


In the early '80s, Erda Erdos helped start a foreign and independent film series called York Flicks at the Capitol Theatre.

"A group of us wanted to see independent and foreign films available in York," Erdos said. "You get exposed to a world outside of your own; you get exposed to different cultures. I think movies tell great stories. They seem to be about the human condition."

The series did well, Erdos said, until The Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center went dark for two years of renovations around the millennium. After it re-opened, not everyone returned.

Movies, which were the lifeblood of York's Strand and Capitol theaters for decades, are now just a small component of the nonprofit performing arts center's $1.25 million budget.

CEO Ken Wesler said movies that are attached to a holiday event, including "White Christmas" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," still do well at the Capitol. But if a movie is available via download or at other theaters, attendance sags.

"(Capitol Cinema) doesn't get enough attendance" Wesler said, citing the thousands needed for digital equipment. "I do not think it will be possible for the Strand-Capitol to raise that kind of money."

If the Strand-Capitol asks for separate donations for a digital projector, he worries that giving in other areas might drop.

Movies and documentaries are scheduled through this month at the Capitol, and Wesler said screenings will likely continue. If staff encounters difficulties renting movies, he said, he'll re-evaluate the situation.


The transition to digital is much more expensive for theaters with more than one screen.

With 14 screens across theaters in York Township, Lancaster and Harrisburg, FunTime Cinemas faced a $1 million-plus price tag to convert to digital. Recent estimates cut that in half, said Rachel Daddezio, marketing coordinator for the regional chain of small theaters.

Studios and distributors determine when to send movies to second-run houses, depending on how well they do at megaplexes.

"We're the little guys," Daddezio said. "They don't really care about us. They don't think we affect their bottom line."

She added that by the end of 2012, fewer 35-millimeter prints were available.

To raise funds for the conversion, the chain sold advertising on screens and created a Dollars for Digital fund. PNC Bank provided additional financing, helped the chain purchase digital projectors for its three locations.

Last month, crews installed digital projectors at South York Cinemas 4 in York Township. Owner Ronda Fitzsimmons watched workers place new projectors -- the size of small printers -- on top of film projector bases. Cords connected them to hard drives, which held movies.

In an adjacent booth, staff got ready to load one of the last 35-millimeter films -- about the size of a 10-speed bike tire.

"It's boring," Fitzsimmons said with a smile as she described running the digital equipment. She added that the projectors, which have to run all night, might increase electric bills. But, to her, it's worth the cost to keep loyal employees and viewers.

Fitzsimmons sold her house -- which the theater's past success helped her buy -- to give money to the digital fund. She now rents.


Ian Olney, a York College professor who runs the Humanities Film Series, said the race for the highest quality picture and sound won't cease. In the future, he said the lines might blur between reality and movies thanks 3D holograms, virtual reality and sensory elements.

A year ago, Frank Theatres in York Township installed D-BOX MFX seats, which move in sync to on-screen action. Scott, the theater's manager, said they've been successful. In February, the multiplex installed IMAX, which provides more peripheral range.

Movie magic will continue without 35-millimeter projectors, but as technology morphs, fewer theaters will likely keep up.

And there is a final complication: As film is being discarded and more theaters close, audiences in America have shifted.

Screenings used to be communal, Olney said. Audiences reacted as a whole -- and as individuals -- to what they saw. Now, more people are forgoing theaters to stream movies at home or on mobile devices. Most don't care how movies are transmitted.

But Olney added that physical theaters likely won't go the way of vaudeville acts and film projectors -- for the foreseeable future.

Back at the Elks, Einhorn said the digital conversion could be a great equalizer. As small theaters switch to digital, audiences will get the same movie quality -- and possibly a wider variety of titles -- everywhere.

"The thing I think has really widened the gap between what indie cinemas and multiplexes can offer is the difference in quality and how quickly films are available," he said. "There is a chance the conversion might create a boom in the indie theater industry, since it will draw attention to small theaters, and it requires them to compete with larger ones."


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