Small-town movie theaters face death by digital

Four reels of 35mm film of the movie 'Scarface' and a metal shipping case. Image courtesy of Archive and Antiques & Uniques Inc.

Four reels of 35mm film of the movie ‘Scarface’ and a metal shipping case. Image courtesy of Archive and Antiques & Uniques Inc.

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) – Bob Rollings loved that robot, but it had to go.

It was a beloved, stubby R2-D2 from the original 1977 Star Wars movie. This version was a replica, a beverage cooler, a promotional item. But its sacrifice helped save the Ritz Theatre in Thermopolis, the place it called home.

The robot sold for $750. Only $69,250 left to go.

Rollings and his wife, Edie, owners of the Ritz, pushed on with fundraising, selling movie posters, 210 spaghetti dinners and auctioning cookie jars. A dollar here, a dollar there, piling up to the approximately $70,000 needed for a digital projector for the small one-screen theater in the central Wyoming town of 3,000.

The Ritz must surrender to digital projection soon. Movies on 35-millimeter film are near death, strangled by the rise of easy and cheap digital copies sent via hard drive from film distributors to exhibitors.

Nearly all movie theaters in the U.S., and most in Wyoming, have made the switch. But a handful of survivors in the state and elsewhere remain. They’re mostly small theaters, some historic, where theater workers spool up film in the projectionist booth, just like it’s been done for more than a century.

Edie Rollings says she can’t go anywhere in town without getting asked about the theater’s situation. She’s gotten $5 donations. The Ritz isn’t just a movie theater, she said. It’s a small-town destination, a place to rent movies, a safe spot for kids to hang out and play games.

“It’s an icon in this town, it really is,” she said.

Theaters such as the Ritz might be small-town centerpieces and signs of a bustling community, but they’ve run out of options.

The choice is clear: change or die.

Movie theater owners in Wyoming first caught a glimpse of cinema’s digital future slightly more than a decade ago.

Bill Campbell, owner of Centennial Theatre in Sheridan, recalls a trip to Denver in 1999 to get a look at the new technology of digital projection.

“It was in its infancy and it had some work to do, but you could see, yeah, it’s there,” he said.

The owners could see the potential of digital. It would certainly be less hassle: no film to thread in theater projection rooms, for example, and the movies would be more durable and easier to transport.

The cost at the time, though, was staggering: $150,000 per screen. It was hard for theater owners to justify that price when nearly all movies were still distributed on film and transported in large canisters.

“The studios, they were the ones that would save hundreds of millions of dollars in costs,” Campbell said.

The future was clear, but it was still the future.

The industry started a program to help pay the costs for theaters to switch from 35 mm film to digital. The National Association of Theatre Owners, a theater trade association, also formed its Cinema Buying Group, a purchasing cooperative to help small theaters get volume discount prices on parts and concession items.

But not every theater participated in the group, and the industry assistance program ended on Sept. 30.

Some theaters were left out in the cold or chose to hold out, hoping they would survive somehow, said Campbell, who is also the managing director of the NATO Cinema Buying Group.

As of December, 32,863 out of 39,777 screens in the U.S., or about 83 percent, had converted to digital, Campbell said. Of the remaining screens, most are in small theaters and “dollar houses,” which charge a small ticket price for movies nearly out on DVD and available for online streaming.

“So now these people are kind of out on their own,” he said.

But there’s a ticking clock on how long the last few film theaters can hang on. While Campbell says studios have yet to set a hard deadline for the switch to digital, film is dying by strangulation. The studios are making fewer and fewer copies of movies on film, shrinking the number of options for film theaters. After all, most movie theaters use digital now.

Those left are the survivors of film.

There’s some hope the cost of conversion will drop. Projectors are getting cheaper, for example.

But those theaters yet to convert know their time is very, very short. And while the cost to convert is lower than the $150,000-per-screen price tag Campbell remembers from 1999, it’s still a sobering expense. Theaters owners in Wyoming quote per-screen prices from $65,000 to $85,000.

“It’s still a pricey proposition for the theaters to come up with money,” Campbell said. “And now, it’s now on them.”

The Rollingses in Thermopolis are rallying the community to save the Ritz theater. Edie Rollings reports the theater has had success selling naming rights for the seats in the theater: Pay a donation of at least $50 and get your name engraved on a plaque on the back of the seat.

In late December, she estimated they’ve raised about $13,000 – far short of the $65,000-$70,000 conversion cost, but a good start and one that shows the community is behind the project.

In Douglas, The Princess Theatre owner Kara Koss considered the seat-naming idea. She’s also considering placing stars engraved with the names of donors in the sidewalk in front of the theater.

Koss will partially cover the conversion cost through bank financing, and then will likely pass on the cost to her patrons, although she’d like to avoid that. Concessions might have to cost more, followed by at most a $1 per ticket price bump.

“I’m going to do everything I can to not raise tickets,” she said.

The Princess will turn 100 years old in 2014. It’s new heart, the digital projector is getting installed tonight.

Brian Feraud, owner of Washakie Twin Cinemas in Worland, is eying refinancing his house to get the money. He’s got two screens to convert.

Ticket prices are probably going to have to go up, he said. Yet that’s better than the alternative.

“What I’ve heard from others around the country is they’re going to have to shut their doors,” he said.

It’s a loss those in each theater’s community could feel dearly. In wide-open Wyoming, a shuttered local theater means at least a long drive for a Friday night movie. But a closed theater is also sign of a town in decline, whether or not it’s truly failing.

Thermopolis resident Jacky Wright has a 12-year-old child, and she has fond memories of attending the cinema at the same age – one of the first places she was allowed to go on her own.

“The cinema is a vital piece of the community, it’s just another of the amenities that makes this a good town to live in,” she said. “If it disappears, it’s another reason not to live here.”

Wright doesn’t want that. Neither do the Rollingses. Neither does anyone who wants a bit of Hollywood magic to light up their community.

“There are a lot of prayers going up that we’ll be able to save our theater,” Edie Rollings said.

R2-D2, the lovable movie robot first shown via 35 mm film, was just the start.


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune,

Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-01-25-13 1635GMT


Four reels of 35mm film of the movie 'Scarface' and a metal shipping case. Image courtesy of Archive and Antiques & Uniques Inc.

Four reels of 35mm film of the movie ‘Scarface’ and a metal shipping case. Image courtesy of Archive and Antiques & Uniques Inc.