The Village Cinema in Coulee Dam, Washington, has never had the romantic allure of the quintessential small-town movie theater.
There's no historic building, or old marquis, or setting on a Norman Rockwell-worthy Main Street. In recent years, it's held just one screening a week, the easiest way for the few thousand residents in nearby small towns along the Columbia River to see new movies. As one of the theater's two Yelp reviewers put it, "I prefer to patronize this local business instead of paying for the fuel to drive an hour and a half to a new theater. Great way to pass a Sunday afternoon."
For locals in small towns like Coulee Dam, such Sunday afternoons at the movies may soon disappear. By the end of this year, an industry-mandated conversion to digital projectors will make it nearly impossible for many small, one or two-screen theaters in isolated towns across America to continue to operate.
Movie theaters first began installing digital projectors about a dozen years ago, and as recently as 2004 there were only 90 digital movie screens in all of North America. For movie studios, the transition to digital is an obvious one. The picture is generally clearer, and, more significantly, the financial and logistical costs of distribution are radically lower. A single copy of a 35mm feature film costs studios upwards of $1,500, while copies on digital hard drives run at about a tenth of that, with prices falling fast. Eventually, satellite transmission could make getting first-run films to theaters across the globe virtually hassle-free.
But for small theater owners, the choice isn't so economically obvious. Estimated costs for conversion to digital projectors and sound systems can run well above $50,000 per screen. Big multiplex chains have led the charge over the past five years, as AMC, Regal, and other major players quickly ramped up their digital transition efforts. The industry has created several financing mechanisms designed to offset some of the up-front costs of a new digital projector. But many small-town theaters don't serve a large enough customer base or bring in enough in ticket revenues to make even the most generous of these loan schemes viable. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, at the end of 2012, 84 percent of U.S. movie theater screens were digital. Starting this winter, it will become essentially impossible for the remaining theaters to find first-run films from major studios on 35mm, meaning they'll have to settle for showing older or independent films that won't bring in enough traffic to remain profitable.
Last year, The New York Times lamented the possible shuttering of beach-front, resort-town theaters in places like Ocean City, New Jersey. Earlier this month, Honda launched Project Drive-In, pledging to donate projectors to save at least five of America's 368 historic, if perhaps antiquated, drive-in movie screens. And around the country small businesses in cities like Portland and San Francisco have begun fundraising drives to bring digital projectors to their historic urban theaters.
While these boardwalk and center-city theaters are no doubt important anchors in their communities, digital conversion is poised to hurt most in places like Coulee Dam. The resource and lifestyle gaps between rural and urban are already vast. As if adding insult to injury, it looks like Hollywood might be the latest exodus from small-town America.
And in most cases it's not really competition from big chains that may force small-town theaters to shut down. Unlike the spate of historic theaters that closed in larger downtowns in the 1990s and 2000s, there is no giant AMC multiplex drawing away their customers.
Take the Rogers City Theater, just a few blocks from Lake Huron in the northern reaches of Michigan, which is the last remaining movie screen in vast Presque Isle County, Michigan. Owner Karl W. Heidemann, a retired lawyer, bought the theater 11 years ago, in part as a hobby and in part as a way to give back to the community. When I spoke with Heidemann, he was taking a short break from preparations for the opening night of the town youth theater's production of The Little Mermaid. Without the revenue from first-run movie ticket sales, he explained, it would be impossible to keep the theater open for these other local events.
As time runs out, small cinemas like Rogers City have turned to local fundraising campaigns and online platforms like Kickstarter to see if they can find a way to make the cost of digital conversion feasible. In Upstate New York, a coalition of eight local theaters have banded together, led by the Adirondack Film Society and the Adirondack North Country Association. ANCA's Melissa Hart explains that the organization saw saving the movie theaters as perfectly in line with its mission of rural economic development. "We were trying to collectively envision what these communities would look like without these theaters," she says. "They’re built right into the fabric of the main street, and they pretty much serve as the anchors. If those buildings were shuttered or torn down, it would affect the look and feel of the downtown area."
All of the dozen or so theaters in the region used 35mm film at the beginning of this year, so if none were able to pay for a digital projector, locals would have to travel nearly two hours to Plattsburgh or Glen Falls just to catch a new release. The digital transition has already begun to cut into these small theater's bottom lines. With fewer available copies of first-run movies available, towns in the region have had to essentially wait their turn for newly released movies this summer. But in the last two months, ANCA's "Go Digital or Go Dark" campaign has already brought in enough funds to save three local theaters.
In September, The State Theater in the small town of Tupper Lake, New York, will close for a month to install its new digital projector. Sally Strasser, the theater's owner, says she's been losing sleep about the digital conversion for years, spending time scouring the internet in the hopes of finding an affordable used system. Over the past few weeks, a series of donations from the local arts association and several town residents, both year-round and summer visitors, have finally made buying a new system feasible.
Kickstarter is also filled with failed campaigns from less high-profile towns in places like Illinois and Colorado. The owners of Coulee Dam's Village Cinema took to the crowdsourcing site earlier this year, but raised less than 3 percent of their $95,000 goal before time ran out. When the old projector broke this spring, it was nearly impossible to find replacement parts, and the theater's owners had to cut their losses. "If we continue to go on a hope and prayer,” owner Lynnette Zierden told the local paper, “the bills are still piling up.”
In Rogers City, Karl Heidemann is hopeful about the future of its fundraising campaign, which has netted over 60 percent of its $100,000 goal in the first half of its 60 day run. "If we don’t get the digital projector, pretty much everything is in jeopardy," Heidemann said. "I’m just a short-term caretaker here. But I’d hate to be the last one."
Top Image: An ominous promotional image of The Palace Theatre in Lake Placid, New York, as part of the "Go Digital or Go Dark" campaign. Photo courtesy of ANCA.