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Digital projection threatens some community theaters

The future has arrived for New England’s small-town movie theaters. Unfortunately, it’s consigning some of them to the past.

Last September, Elaine Riendeau of Gorham, N.H., had to close the Casablanca Cinema 4, the movie house she has run in Bethel, Maine, since 2000. The choice wasn’t really hers: With the national film exhibition industry rapidly converting exclusively to digital projection, she couldn’t afford to upgrade the Casablanca from the 35mm film platter system that had served it well for 12 years.

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One installed digital projector costs $60,000 to $75,000. With four screens, Riendeau would have had to pay a minimum of $240,000 just to stay in business. “Now ask yourself: Why did I close the theater?” she says with the terseness of a North Country local accepting her fate. “Business is business. Nothing is fair in the real world.”

True enough, and what’s being asked of independently owned movie theaters across the country — the real mom-and-pops, some of them Main Street cinemas that have been around since the days of silent film — is hardly fair. Sometime in the next 18 months, according to many in the industry, new movies will cease being released on celluloid film. An era will end, taking the stragglers with it.

Asked to bear most or all of the cost of digital conversion, small-town theaters, from nonprofit art houses to for-profit theaters showing studio releases, are resorting to a variety of measures to scrape up the necessary cash. Kickstarter campaigns have been launched, grant proposals written, bank loans taken out, and patrons asked to open their wallets. In most cases, the very existence of these picture palaces is at stake.

Shelly Gibson, owner of Village Picture Shows Cinema in Manchester Center, Vt., sold tickets to a patron.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Shelly Gibson, owner of Village Picture Shows Cinema in Manchester Center, Vt., sold tickets to a patron.

So is the critical community gathering place they provide. “I believe that the small-town movie theater is truly the heart and soul of this business,” said Shelly Gibson of Manchester Center, Vt. While national multiplex chains have had few problems bankrolling the conversion, Gibson figures she’ll have to come up with $175,000 to purchase and install digital projection systems for the two-screen Village Picture Shows she runs with her husband, Jeff Nyweide.

“That’s all on our shoulders,” she said. “We’re holding it together in the hopes of going digital, and frankly my husband and I can’t cough up that kind of money. And if it doesn’t come from somewhere, there won’t be a theater any more. This month Gibson and Nyweide turned to the Internet fund-raising site Kickstarter; to date the campaign has raised almost $80,000.

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The push to convert the industry from 35mm film prints to digital files began more than a decade ago, but it only picked up steam in recent years with the success of 3-D movies like 2009’s “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Up,” and James Cameron’s “Avatar.” The latter was a watershed moment for the technology, with the worldwide number of digital screens more than doubling in the film’s wake.

The major US multiplex chains (Regal, AMC, Cinemark, and Carmike are the “big four,” with about 17,000 of the country’s 39,500 screens) have for the most part already converted their theaters. Says John Fithian, head of the industry trade group the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), “32,000 of the total screens in the US are now digitized.” That’s 80 percent — but when you factor out the Big Four, the number falls to about 60 percent.

The movie studios and their corporate owners are pushing hard for the conversion, and with good reason: They stand to save millions of dollars. It costs about $1,500 to make and ship a 35mm print, with a major studio release running to 4,000 prints.

By contrast, the cost of a paperback-size hard drive containing a digital movie runs to about $150. There are benefits to exhibitors and their paying customers, too. A digital print will never scratch or break, and it will look as good on the 1,000th play as on the first. Plus, going digital means a theater can roll out alternate programming like broadcasts of live opera, concerts, and stage plays as well as films outside the standard distribution channels.

Shelly Hudson, executive director of the Red River Theatres, a three-screen art house in Concord, N.H. said, “I like classic 35, the way that it looks, but I understand the improved quality of digital. I also love the idea that a small independent filmmaker is going to be able to produce quality film at much less expensive cost.”

Hudson plans to convert the Red River to digital in the first quarter of 2013 and has raised $175,000 through grants and support from the community through the theater’s “Go Digital or Go Dark” campaign.

The projector on the right at Somerville Theatre is digital, the one on the left is film. It is expected that within 18 months, newmovies will cease to be released on celluloid.

Yoon S. Byun / Globe Staff

The projector on the right at Somerville Theatre is digital, the one on the left is film. It is expected that within 18 months, newmovies will cease to be released on celluloid.

The reality is that the industry has reached a tipping point. Late in 2011, 20th Century Fox sent out a letter warning that within a year or two “the digital format [will be] the only format in which [the studio] will theatrically distribute its films.” The other studios are expected to follow suit, after which those theaters that haven’t converted will have nothing to show but classic films on aging prints.

Carol Johnson, executive director of Amherst Cinema in Western Massachusetts, says “35mm film served the industry for over 100 years and it’s been a really stable medium. But you don’t have a choice. You have to convert if you want access to the popular films, and those are the films that pay the bills.”

Like many of the small-town theaters facing conversion, Amherst Cinema plans to keep one of its 35mm projectors around to screen repertory prints of older movies.

Johnson has already had to close one movie house, the Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton. A haven for film-lovers in the Five-College Area since the 1970s, the Pleasant Street faced a host of physical limitations, but the cost of installing a new projection system may have been the final nail in the coffin.

“We probably would have kept it open [if not for digital] but it’s hard to say,’’ Johnson said. “People really loved that theater. It was the iconic, legendary destination — the place to go ­— when you needed to see an art house film.’’

She is currently exploring ways to convert the three screens at Amherst Cinema and has received a $75,000 matching grant from the State of Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund. The total costs, she estimates, will run between $200,000 and $300,000. Small exhibitors across New England and the United States are staring down the same barrel.

Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre has raised 90 percent of the $223,000 needed for its Digital Cinema Challenge campaign, and the Brattle in Harvard Square has launched a three-pronged strategy of Kickstarter, grant writing, and fund-raising. (The Kendall Square, part of the national Landmark chain, has already converted.)

The two-screen Dedham Community Theatre hopes to raise funds from its devoted customer base.“We definitely feel the love from them,” said general manager Sarah Reynolds. “There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t get people coming in saying ‘We love your theater; we wait to see movies until they come here.’ ”

West Newton Cinema owner David Bramante plans to convert his six screens by the end of 2013. Ian Judge, director of operations for the Somerville Theatre and Arlington’s Capitol Theatre, has already made the conversion, although “if it were up to us, we would have probably stuck with film forever.”

The studios recognize that many theaters may not have ready funds, and have set up a complicated — and controversial — system to help out. Judge’s FEI Theatres signed up with an “integrator,” one of a handful of third-party companies who act as middlemen, installing the projectors and charging the studios a Virtual Print Fee, or VPF, for each screening of their films. That money then goes back to the theater to offset the cost of the conversion.

Amherst Cinema

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Amherst Cinema.

The VPFs, which Fithian says can eventually cover 50 to 70 percent of the outlay, are tempting for a small theater owner but can come with strings attached, since the contracts give integrators and the studios computerized oversight over what gets played and when.

Dave Fuller, owner of the Rialto in Lancaster, N.H., said the VPF program “ is a huge Big Brother. It’s got a direct line to the projector so that it’s always seeing what the projector is doing. If you have an extra show or don’t have a show, they’re going to question why you’re doing that.”

Many of the small theater owners interviewed for this article avoided signing with an integrator. “I should be able to do what I want in my theater,” Gibson said.

Repeated requests for comment by spokespersons for the major distributors were turned down.

There are other problems with the new technology, which requires some retraining for most projectionists to master. When a 35mm projector breaks down, it’s a mechanical fix, but when a digital projector malfunctions, it’s a computer problem.

Mike Hurley, who owns the Colonial Theater in Belfast, installed a recommended software upgrade on his new digital projector and suddenly was unable to show movies. “We lost more shows in a month than we had lost in the previous 17 years,” he says. “We just couldn’t get the movie going. You try everything, you call for help. You don’t need a projectionist. You need a computer genius.”

Then there’s the issue of obsolescence. Many small-town theaters have projectors that have been in operation since the 1950s, and they look askance at digital systems that may be out of date within a decade.

The Colonial Theatre in Bethlehem, N.H., opened in 1915 and is possibly the oldest continually operated movie theater in the country. Steve Dignazio, who runs the theater, remains wary.

“It’s pretty scary — you’re basically spending a lot of money for computer equipment that you hope is going to work. We’re running a projector now that’s pre-WWII, and it works. Keep it oiled and greased and it goes. I don’t know how many of us feel the same way about our computers.”

Yet Dignazio is planning to install a digital projector in the coming year; like all the other theater owners struggling to survive, he feels he has no choice. If the Bethlehem Colonial wants to show any new releases from the major studios or their art house boutique wings — let alone 3-D films or 48 frames-per-second blockbusters like “The Hobbit” — it’s convert or die.

There are some who see a larger conspiracy in the background, an attempt by the entertainment corporations to control the remaining independents and shut out smaller film distributors through the new digital pipelines.

Dignazio frets about “the Walmart-ization of the film industry” and Terrence Youk, owner of the 97-year-old Savoy Theater in Montpelier, calls it “a deal with the devil. We’re being faced with having to [convert] for some of these majors, and their intent is, I think, beyond just the savings in film prints and shipping. I think it’s a move to consolidate their holdings. And, yes, I resent that.”

For many of the theater owners, the issue is about much more than movies. It’s about keeping struggling downtowns alive and bringing people together in an age when it’s easier to stay at home and fire up the 48-inch screen.

“There are an awful lot of people like my husband and myself that do things like this to keep small communities up and running. If we were only in it for the profit, we would have closed five years ago,” Gibson said.

And if her theater doesn’t find an angel soon, there will be one less reason to go to Main Street.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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