Digital Upgrade Threatens Small Movie Theaters

07/26/12 7:34AM By Steve Zind
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VPR/Steve Zind
Owner Dave Tomaszewski in the projection booth and the Playhouse Theater in Randolph. The theater's old 35mm film projector will have to be replaced with digital equipment at an estimated cost of $100,000.

Dramatic changes are coming to your local movie theater over the next 18 months.  

You won't notice them at the snack bar or the ticket window, but you will if you take a peek into the projection booth.

The industry is doing away with 35mm film and going all-digital and theaters have to purchase expensive new equipment to make the switch.

It's a technological leap forward, but the costs, which can be as high as $100,000 per screen is threatening some small Vermont theaters.

The films that screen at the Playhouse Theater in Randolph were made using some very high tech wizardry.  But the 35mm projector used to show them is circa 1940.

As the film industry moves from celluloid to digital, this single screen theater in a town of 5,000 will have to make the switch, too, or shut its doors.

Tammy Tomaszewski who owns the theater with her husband says the cost of a new digital projector is far beyond their means.  

"We make enough money to make repairs every year, small ones.  But nothing major like a $100,000 movie projector."

The Tomaszewski's have decided the only way to keep the theater in business is to turn it over to a community run cooperative they hope will be able to raise the money for the digital transition.  

Some theaters have already made the change. Fred Bashara and his family own two theaters in Central Vermont. Bashara spent $700,000 for the conversion. He says many big theaters have already made the switch. "Probably 70 percent  or more have already done it."

One incentive to go digital early is an industry payback program that helps cover some of the expense by returning a portion of ticket sales to the theater. 

Bashara estimates the program will cover 40 to 50 percent of his digital costs. But smaller theaters that sell relatively few tickets say the program won't help them.

Jody Fried is Executive Director of Catamount Arts, a St. Johnsbury non-profit that shows a mix of films in its theaters.

"If you don't have ticket sales and you're not selling thousands of tickets and the way the payback is designed is based on a fee that's added on to the tickets, the math for art houses and non-profits for ourselves does not necessarily work," Fried explains.

Fried says because they won't benefit from the industry pay back program, small theaters are anxious about how to pay for the expense of the digital changeover. They're also worried that what they buy now will be obsolete in a few years. 

Those concerns are shared by Terry Youk, who owns the Savoy Theater, a Montpelier art house. Youk says the only way the Savoy can survive is for him to sell the theater to a non-profit, which will give it tax advantages and the ability to fund raise and apply for grants.

Youk says screening the small independently produced films won't require the expensive new technology, but even art houses rely on the revenue from films released by the major movie companies that are moving to all digital. "Our top-grossing films come from those three majors."

There are benefits to the transition. Gail Nunziata of the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, which will move to digital in September says the improved quality will please moviegoers. "I think the general public will just be pleased with the sound and the look of them."

The digital changeover also includes drive-ins, which have the added disadvantage of operating for just a few months out of the year.

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