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Small Town Movie Houses Struggle With Switch To Digital

GRANGEVILLE, Idaho - This summer’s blockbuster line-up is teeming with highly anticipated names — like Batman, Spiderman, and the Avengers. That’s good news for the people who run cinemas. But for many small theaters across the Northwest, opening weekend is becoming a struggle.

More movies are starting to come on hard drives instead of reels. So theaters must make a costly conversion to digital if they want to stay in the game. And time is running out.

The cars look different. But not much else has changed since 1955 when this drive-in opened in a field outside of Grangeville, Idaho.

Inside a room smelling vaguely of popcorn, the projectionist presses a button. The lamp in the old projector blinks on, the motor fires up and light streams through frames of film onto a screen four storeys tall.

This is the same system that owner Chris Wagner learned from his father and his father learned from his father.

“Yeah, it’s been around like I said, since they’ve been shipping film,” Wagner says. “It was pretty much like it is today.”

But that’s about to change. Movies are entering in the digital age.

Sitting in his drive-in’s field at sunset, Wagner says, “Film is just on its way out. If you want to be in business, you’ll have to be digital. Probably in the next two years.”

Studios are making fewer film prints, opting instead to send out much cheaper data files. The problem for small theater owners like Wagner is that the equipment to play those files costs between $70,000 and $100,000.

“Basically, a lot of small towns in America I think are going to be without a movie theater,” Wagner says. “I’m having a harder time getting prints as we speak.”

Some estimates predict as many as 10 percent of the nation’s theaters could shut down over this.

That’s why Wagner has made the leap at his other Grangeville theater. We’re standing in the projection booth of the Blue Fox — a Spanish style theater his grandfather built just before the Crash of ‘29. Next to the old 35 mm projector is a new digital system, its fans whirring. A computer monitor shows what looks like a rudimentary iTunes with playlists of downloaded trailers and movies.

And with the click of a mouse, “Men in Black 3” begins …

Hollywood has always tapped into new technology for making movies. But the way the final product gets to the audience? This is the first fundamental change. Gary Parks of the Theatre Historical Society says the result may be some small towns lose a bit of their history.

“These movie theaters were really the first place where people were brought together by mass communication,” he says. “Now we take that stuff for granted.”

Theaters have known the switch to digital was coming for at least a decade. But it was a slow process. Then, in 2009, a movie came out that changed everything.

“You had ‘Avatar’ in 3D. And ‘Avatar’ made more money in its 3D than I believe in its 2D,” says Gary Klein of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

He says if you want to get in on the 3D game, you needed to upgrade to digital. Klein says the major studios have offered a kind of rebate to help theaters cover the initial cost.

“Because changing from having to make thousands of prints of a film was going to save the studios billions of dollars,” Klein explains. “So once all of that got resolved, the transition has proceeded rather quickly.”

But independent and art house theater owners say it’s not happily ever after — in fact, you might call this a plot twist.

They argue the rebate agreements favor major studio films over indie movies. And Steve Herring with Living Room Theatres in Portland says often the smaller theaters — which need assistance most — aren’t eligible.

“There’s a lot of people who think it’s a conspiracy to eliminate the little people,” Herring says. “And you could look at it that way, but I think it’s just an accidental side effect of what’s happening.”

Back at the Sunset Auto Vue in Grangeville, Chris Wagner says he hopes digital projectors will follow in the path of most technology — that is, start coming down in price. His family’s theaters have survived the advent of talkies, of tv, of video … and Wagner says he’ll survive this too.

“Just new technology, and you just gotta do it to stay in businesses. But it’s sure a nice picture — digital — versus film. It’s a lot crisper picture.”

And anyway, some of Wagner’s favorite movies have been about the underdog.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

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