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Indie theaters feel the pinch of digital crossover

Published September 4, 2013 6:54 pm

Projection change • Small-town and art-house theaters are among last to switch.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There's a little ceremony whenever the Utah-based Megaplex Theatres chain opens a new multiplex: a ribbon-cutting, with a reel of film acting as the ribbon.

Thing is, though, the film being cut is the only reel getting any use at most modern movie theaters. The future, and much of the present, is digital cinema, with hard drives filled with ones and zeroes being plugged into projectors instead of spools of celluloid threading past the bulb.

Most major chain multiplex theaters have already made the switch. But for independent theaters in small towns, and for Salt Lake City's two art houses, the expensive conversion to digital is still coming.

Of the 40,045 commercial movie screens in the United States, 35,885 of them — or 89.6 percent — have switched to digital, said Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer of the National Association of Theater Owners.

The pressure is on the remaining theaters, from Hollywood studios and indie distributors, to switch sooner rather than later.

"[My booker] is tearing her hair out," said Tori Baker, director of the Salt Lake Film Society, which runs Salt Lake City's art houses, the Broadway Centre Cinemas and the Tower Theatre.

Most studios and indie distributors have told theaters that they will stop striking 35mm prints of their films within the next year. The film companies have been issuing such warnings for years, but now they seem to mean it.

"If they are still making prints, they're making them on a very small level," Baker said.

For the distributors, going digital is a major cost saver. Striking film prints is expensive, since the film stock is coated in silver nitrate. Shipping six or eight bulky reels costs far more than sending a hard drive that's only slightly larger than a VHS tape. Digital copies also don't degrade over time, and they can be secured (with an encryption key, usually sent to the theater via email) to prevent piracy.

For theaters, though, it's a costly change. Digital projectors sell for between $50,000 and $100,000 each.

Salt Lake Film Society was hit by the reality of the digital switch last year, and from an unexpected source: repertory titles, the old movies in the studios' back catalogs.

When it came time to reserve a copy of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" for the Tower's traditional Halloween screenings, Baker and her staff learned that 20th Century Fox had switched over to digital — and only had five 35mm prints available for the entire country. The Tower, with its history of sold-out "Rocky Horror" shows, snagged one of those five, but it was a close call.

This summer, when the Tower tried to book "The Exorcist" for its midnight-movie series, the studio said no — because director William Friedkin won't let the studio release anything but digital versions.

By next year, Baker said, "if [studios] are still making prints, they're making them on a very small level."

At the same time, Baker said, many indie distributors have stopped striking prints altogether. Magnolia Pictures sent its documentary "Blackfish," now playing at the Broadway, on a Blu-ray disc — and the Broadway is using a Blu-ray projector borrowed from the Sundance Film Festival to show it.

Theaters in small Utah towns also are feeling the pinch.

At the Casino Star Theatre, the 100-year-old not-for-profit theater in Gunnison, organizers are applying for grant money and holding a fundraising campaign to make new digital projectors part of an ongoing renovation.

Prints for 35mm projectors "will be more and more difficult to obtain," said Lori Nay, one of the founding directors of the Casino Star Foundation.

New projectors are vital to the Casino Star's survival. "The movie theater is what makes it possible to do the renovations," Nay said. "It keeps the lights on."

Other small-town theaters are gearing up for the change. The Wayne Theatre in Bicknell, home of the offbeat Bicknell International Film Festival, has a "save the Wayne" campaign online. The Kamas Theatre has scheduled a Sept. 28 concert to raise money.

Even The Salt Lake Film Society is in the middle of a massive fundraiser, with an ultimate goal of $700,000 to put top-of-the-line digital projectors in the Tower and all six of the Broadway's screens. With projectors, as with most products, you get what you pay for — and Baker said the high-end projectors will be upgradable and less likely to become obsolete in five years.)

But Baker isn't waiting for the fundraising to finish. Thanks to an operational loan, which she said will be covered by grants arriving later, she plans to have three digital projectors installed by the end of September — one in the Tower and two at the Broadway.

Much of SLFS's fundraising is through grants and foundations, but about $250,000 needs to be raised from individual donors, Baker said.

So far, individual donors have contributed $65,000 — and an online fundraising campaign will launch on Kickstarter Friday, Sept. 6, aiming to raise $50,000 more. Local filmmakers Trent Harris ("Plan 10 From Outer Space") and Tyler Measom ("Sons of Perdition") are featured in the Kickstarter video pitch.

"We have to get creative," Baker said, "and getting creative means going to the individual moviegoers."

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