Film
6:06 pm
Thu November 21, 2013

Small movie theaters struggle to switch to digital

Film engineer Johanna Kelly preps some trailer film at WMU's Little Theatre
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Starting January first, the film industry will stop making movies on the old 35 millimeter reels—which means movie theaters all over the country have until that date to switch to digital projectors. But it hasn’t been easy for small theaters—the new technology starts at about $50,000. Despite the cost, theaters in Southwest Michigan are trying to make it work.

At the Little Theatre on Western Michigan University’s campus, the Kalamazoo Film Society is gearing up for a bittersweet 25th anniversary this December. Film Society President Mike Marchak says the group can’t afford to convert the theater to digital—at least not right now.

“We knew this was coming, we just had no idea what it would cost," he says. "And we’ve been putting money aside in the better years for such a transition. And we’ve got about half of it put away, but we’d have to raise the other half if we decided to stay there.”

The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema—which had its grand opening this week—has plans to let the film society use a few of their screens. But nothing is set in stone yet. James Sanford is the Creative Manager at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. He says the Alamo has been too busy planning for their opening this weekend to draw up a proposal, but the Alamo expects to have something within the next few weeks. Sanford says they will likely partner with the Kalamazoo Film Society after the first of the year.

Robert Pennick is the general Manager Miller Auditorium at WMU who rents out The Little Theatre. He says student organizations, WMU administrative staff, and many others use The Little Theatre. So he can’t see it going away any time soon.

Marchak says, no matter what happens, the film society will soldier on. But it could be the end for the Western Film Society which temporarily disbanded this school semester. Marchak says that’s because no one is making new 35 millimeter films anymore.

“You know, I thought they might hold on to some prints going in to the new year so there would be some continuity there," he says. "But it’s disappearing fast.”

Glenda Edwards and her husband Neal own two drive-in theaters in Southwest Michigan. To make the switch, Edwards would have to buy the projectors and do some renovating.

“Drive-ins are seasonal, so our rooms are not climate controlled," Edwards says. "And to have the projectors sitting in there throughout the winter and throughout the summer they have to be dust-free. And they also have to be heated in some sense.”

Edwards says she and her husband are working to get a projector for Sunset Drive-in in Hartford. But if they don’t find funding, they’ll have to close their theater in Dowagiac. Edwards says she wouldn’t be surprised if more drive-ins close in the state.

“Because of the age of the people who own it," she says. "You know, they’re not going to recoup that money over the years, because currently if our projector breaks we fix that in house. You know we can fix that and usually get it back up and running. But this projector—you have the projector, you have the building, and then you have the maintenance on it. So it’s a whole new ball game for most of the drive-in owners.”

While it hurts small theaters, the switch to digital projection saves the industry money—about a billion dollars a year. Ron Van Timmeren is the vice president of programming for Celebration Cinema and Loeks Theatres.

“It is far far cheaper to produce a hard drive at $50 obviously than $1,500 for a 35 millimeter print and then shipping them all over the country," says Van Timmeren. "Heavy 35 millimeter prints are not cheap to ship. So it’s a cost savings for the distributer. And honestly for the exhibitor, it gives us longer shelf life with better quality on the content of our screens as well."

While digital films can be shown over and over again by multiple theaters, Van Timmeren says 35 millimeter films can’t handle that.

“Those prints are just falling apart, scratched, bruised, damaged, and in some cased un-playable," he says. "And 35 millimeter deteriorates. That’s why we’re bullish about digital cinema, it lasts forever…in theory.”

Technology is constantly changing today. Who’s to say that there won’t be a better, more expensive format a few years from now?

“It’s already happening," says Van Timmeren. "And that is a concern of ours not just the smaller downtown or older theaters but the big chains as well. There’s new technology. We’re Series One, there’s already Series Two out there that could do much more. Sometimes the equipment is adaptable. I don’t think we’re going to be unable to play anything because we’re Series One not Series Two, but that definitely is a concern.”

Amy Sons and her husband Casey own The Strand in downtown Paw Paw. They made the switch back in April. Some theater owners like Sons are reaching out to other organizations for help. The Paw Paw Downtown Development Authority helped pay for about a third of their digital projector. Sons says The Strand may be a little theater, but it’s a big part of the community.

“Our regulars are the ones that keep us going," says Sons. "And we’re always excited to get new people in here, but it’s also so nice on a Tuesday night when you know 80 percent of the people who are sitting. You know, everybody comes to the door ‘Hey, how are ya?’ And it’s such a nice community thing. The community support has been huge.”