News Column

New standards threaten McDowell Twin, other small theaters

June 1, 2013


June 01--Right before family movie night on Thursday afternoon, McDowell Twin Cinema owner Robert Harwood talks to a customer who has been frantically searching for his wife's lost glasses.

"We haven't found anything, but we'll keep looking," said Harwood, taking down the man's number and promising to call if the glasses reappear.

For many this gesture may not mean much, but for Harwood it says a lot about a business.

"It's just a courtesy," said Harwood. "Folks have lost all kinds of things here and I just want to make sure that they get them back. Part of running a good business is taking care of your customers."

For the last 17 years, Harwood and his family have been taking care of their customers, and they hope that customers will help them through the hard times they'll be facing soon.

"We're hoping that someone will help us come up with a fundraising idea to save our theater," said Harwood. "By the end of this year we're going to have to switch to an all-digital projector, and that costs money."

Indeed it does -- $144,000 for two digital projectors and the screens that are needed for the new machines.

"We've known about the switch for about eight years now," said Harwood. "It hasn't been until the last two years, though, that we've realized that switch is actually going to happen. That means film companies won't release 35 millimeter prints of movies anymore. Instead movies will be sent digitally through the internet."

The change won't just affect new releases, it will also limit the way that theaters can obtain old movies, many of which have already been shelved away in storage with a no-loan out policy attached to them.

"Last Christmas we had a school interested in seeing one of the old 'Home Alone' movies, and we couldn't get a copy of the print because it had already been archived," said Harwood. "Even trying to play nothing but old movies is going to become impossible, once this digital switch takes place at the end of the year."

Unlike big theater chains that have already converted to the digital format, small theaters, like McDowell Twin Cinema, are struggling to make the switch necessary to stay open.

"I've been researching what other theaters are doing," said Harwood. "What I've found in each story is that he community's support has helped save the theaters facing the same problem we're having. I'm hoping that someone will come up with an original idea to help us survive."

Helping Harwood run the theater is his wife, Dorothy Harwood; his daughter, Tina Harwood; and granddaughter, Stephanie Surrat; along with other family members.

Each Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday the family prepares for the incoming crowds, which sometimes come in droves and other times are thin.

"It's hard to say how many people come on a regular basis, it just depends on the movie," said Harwood. "But what we want people to understand, is that if we don't get support by the end of July, we'll have to start thinking about closing -- for good."

For over half of its life the theater has been owned by Harwood's family, and during that time there's been some things that Harwood will never forget, like the time "Titanic" played for 22 straight weeks in 1997.

"People would call when 'Titanic' was playing and ask when we were going to get another movie," said Harwood with a laugh. "The funny part is, even after 22 weeks, people wanted to see that movie. I had to see it so many times, I have it practically memorized."

Along with his memories, Harwood has become somewhat of a celebrity with his famous recorded movie announcements, known for their unique southern twang.

"I think probably the best movie title that daddy's not been able to pronounce is 'Erin Brokavich'," said Harwood's daughter, Tina, before asking her father to say the movie title. "To this day daddy still can't say it, but his flubs are why people from all over the world call here each week to see what's playing."

Harwood said he hates that the theater may close after 35 years of service because of a mandatory, high-priced film standard from Hollywood.

"If we don't see support by July we'll have to close," said Harwood. "There's no way we can afford those new projectors on our own."

Mike Packett, who owns Retro Cinema 4 in Forest City, said the new Hollywood standards will threaten about 3,000 theaters nationwide

In May, Packett held a car show and a festival featuring an autograph session with Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Todd Coffey, a Shelby native, to help raise money for the new equipment.

Folks with ideas on how to raise funds for McDowell Twin Cinemas are encouraged to come by the movie theater during business hours on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and talk with Harwood.


(c)2013 The McDowell News (Marion, N.C.)

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