Small movie theaters struggle to switch from film to digital

Apr 26, 2013

Edie Rollings holds a 35mm film reel in the projection room at the Ritz Theater in Thermopolis.
Credit Rebecca Martinez

Going to the movies has been a favorite pastime since the dawn of film… but Hollywood studios expect to stop printing movies on actual film before the end of this year. They’re switching over to a digital format, which requires all-new equipment… and the cost of the transition is proving prohibitive for some small Wyoming theaters. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez filed this report.

(struggling to open reel box)

EDIE ROLLINGS: They come in on these. These are they reels that they come in on. Then we take the film off of the reels and we put it on the platter. And so this particular movie was seven reels.

REBECCA MARTINEZ: Edie Rollings owns the Ritz Entertainment Center in Thermopolis. She’s unpacking the reels of the Oscar-winning “Lincoln” from a pair of boxes in the projection room at her single-screen movie theater. Like a handful of other small theaters in Wyoming, the Ritz still shows movies on good old-fashioned 35 millimeter film. Rollings says she has to wait until after bigger first-run theaters use the reels before she can get them, and reels are getting scarcer.

ROLLINGS: We still have movies out there, but once Fuji quits making 35mm film, then there won’t be any movies available until we turn to digital.

MARTINEZ: It’s a lot cheaper for Hollywood studios to make digital copies of a movie and send them around the country on tiny hard drives than to print and ship enormous – and finite – film reels. Some people argue that digital offers better sound and picture quality, too. Big theaters started switching out their film set-ups for digital about 10 years ago. According to industry estimates, about 85-percent of theaters in North America have digital systems now. And so they’re getting ready to stop producing movies on film. But Edie Rollings has a problem with this.

ROLLINGS: We have to have digital projector, we have to have a new screen, we have to have a new sound system. We have to basically change everything. And what that means to us is between 65- and 70-thousand-dollars.

MARTINEZ: She says it’s money she doesn’t have. Some theaters, however, did get help.

Bill Campbell owns the Centennial Theater in Sheridan and converted to digital two-and-a-half years ago. He took advantage of a deal offered by the Cinema Buying Group. Under the virtual print fee rollout arrangement, studios used the money they saved from discontinuing reel printing to help pay for participating theaters to switch to digital systems. Campbell says it covered about 85-percent of his transition costs. But a lot of small theaters didn’t qualify for assistance, and were left to fend for themselves. Campbell says that was a short-sighted decision.

BILL CAMPBELL: If they take a movie too late in the run after the national break, they would not be eligible to receive virtual print. So it did become a problem, and it is a problem for some of the smaller theaters.

MARTINEZ: Many small theaters break even or make a small profit, but not enough for a one-time equipment upgrade of tens-of-thousands of dollars. A number of communities around Wyoming have pulled together to raise money for their theater’s changeovers.

The non-profit Laramie Film Society is dedicated to preserving Laramie’s historic Wyo Theater and bringing critically acclaimed movies to the Spring and Fall Film Series there – instead of the lucrative blockbusters that play in a first-run theater across town. The owners of the Wyo declined to comment for this story, but Film Society President Ana Barbir says her group has a plan to help cover the transition.

ANA BARBIR: What we’re throwing around is applying for different grants, doing a Kickstarter campaign. That’s probably where a majority of the money’s gonna come from. We’ve looked at different theaters… There are theaters around the country that are doing a similar thing, and some have been more successful than others.

(clip of movie)

ACTOR 1: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth from this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
DANIEL DAY LEWIS: That’s good, thank you.
ACTOR 2: Now we are engaged in a great civil war…

(bring under)

MARTINEZ: It’s a good turnout for a Tuesday night at the Ritz theater in Thermopolis. Movie goers sit in the dark, munching popcorn and watching Daniel Day Lewis pull off an impressive performance as Abraham Lincoln. Little flecks and squiggles from imperfections on the 35 millimeter film dance across his face.

Thermopolis resident Pauline Denton says she and her girlfriends come to the movies every Tuesday. Aside from bars, she says the Ritz is a major gathering place in the small town.

PAULINE DENTON: As far as high schoolers, this is it. They go to show either Friday night or Saturday night, it’s one or the other, because we don’t have anything else to offer them. We really don’t.

(film projector sound)

MARTINEZ: Ritz owner Edie Rollings says they’ve raised about 13-thousand of the 65-thousand dollars they needs to switch to digital. She says efforts to secure grants and loans have fallen apart, and she’s hoping a big donor will come along soon. For now, the film reels are still coming, and the old projector is still busy every night. Until that changes, she says, she isn’t going to come up with a Plan B.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.