NEWBURYPORT — The Screening Room needs moviegoers to drop a little cash in the (popcorn) bucket.
The 99-seat movie theater at 82 State St. has shown art house and indie films, documentaries, and other offbeat fare since 1982. Now the owners need to raise about $60,000 to convert to digital projection this fall, as 35mm film goes the way of VHS and 8-track tapes.
“The dawning realization has been gradual over the last couple of years,” said Andrew Mungo, the face of the theater to most patrons. “We knew that the change was coming.”
“We started to hear that everything was going to be gone by the end of this year, as far as 35mm” film goes, said his colleague Nancy Langsam, as the two co-owners sat inside the theater on a recent afternoon.
Results for other North Shore independent theaters suggest a happy ending. Both Cinema Salem and the Cape Ann Community Cinema in Gloucester have successfully crowd-funded digital conversions in the last year — learning through the process how much they matter to their patrons.
Premiums offered to supporters of the Screening Room campaign will include a small popcorn for a $5 donation, a movie ticket for $20, and a selection from the theater’s poster collection for $100. For $1,000 or higher amounts, there are 10-year movie passes, private screenings, and even naming rights to the new projector.
Without the Kickstarter campaign, the “modestly profitable” business run by local residents Mungo and Langsam could not reasonably afford the new equipment, they say. The biggest piece is a state-of-the art Christie digital projector to replace the film projectors visible over the ticket-seller’s shoulder from the tiny lobby. Instead of cumbersome reels of 35mm film, movies would arrive on slim portable hard drives to be plugged into a new media server.
“An issue that surprises people is how green this new technology is,” Mungo says. “Every piece of film becomes toxic waste. You’ve got 2,500 screens of ‘Harry Potter.’ In six weeks, you’re down to a couple hundred screens. What happens to those other 2,000-plus prints? They are destroyed.”
There’s also a considerable savings in energy running digital projectors, notes Langsam, whose responsibilities include paying the theater’s electric bill.
Get online, though, and it’s not hard to find cinephiles bemoaning the end of film projection and the alleged visual deficiencies of digital. Mungo mostly doesn’t buy it – in fact it kind of annoys him.
“I think that almost nobody can tell the difference,” Mungo said, “and the occasional person who can tell the difference sets the tone. There’s a tiny percentage of people who know what they’re talking about, and they talk about it at dinner parties, and they affect everyone else, who think that they can now say the same thing, when in fact they never noticed before.”
On the upside, no longer will Screening Room patrons see scratches and dirt that sometimes marred prints arriving after screening at other theaters, he added.
But the 35mm projectors will stay, partly as conversation pieces but in large part because it’s a chore to get rid of them, Mungo said.
The theater opened in the former carpet store and grocery after two years of showing movies upstairs at the now-gone YMCA building, on the same street. Mungo and Langsam program everything from Woody Allen movies to bird documentaries, for appreciative crowds.
“I really do relate to this place as one of the treasures of our city,” said Sharon Wintner, who lives on State Street not far from the theater.
Wintner and her husband, Gene, have been attending movies there – and occasionally taking a volunteer shift at the concession stand – since the beginning.
“It just is a joy to go there,” she said. “They have a wonderful selection of films that we would not be able to see around here if not for that theater. It’s always a warm, welcoming, and comfortable place to go to that almost feels like an alternative to sitting in my living room.
“It’s very community, by which I mean, whether you go alone or with somebody or in a group, chances are, if you live in Newburyport . . . you are going to run into other people you know and feel like you’re sharing the experience with friends,” Wintner said.
For most of the next few weeks, Mungo and the theater’s small crew of part-time employees will show movies on an existing Blu-ray system, having managed to schedule a few in a row that are available in that format. Those are generally from smaller distributors, Mungo said, as the major studios shun Blu-ray due to piracy problems. But they have an installer ready to get to work on the digital projector soon after the end of the Kickstarter drive.
Large multiplex cinemas have mostly converted already. Independent cinemas have found the cost daunting, but the success in the last year of other North Shore theaters in raising money for digital conversions offers encouraging examples.
Cinema Salem, located in the Museum Place Mall, sought $60,000 with a Kickstarter drive that ran last December into January — and raised more than $68,000.
“It was breathtakingly successful and very, very gratifying,” said co-owner Paul Van Ness.
But the Kickstarter total was only a fraction of digital conversion costs for Cinema Salem’s three screens, he said. Although the venue is known for showing some independent films and hosting the Salem Film Fest, its mainstay is first-run major-studio films. That means it was eligible for financial support from a program set up by the major studios to underwrite theater conversions. That program will cover the balance of the $210,000 price tag.
Still, the support shown “was a confirmation of our belief that a movie theater is very important to a community. . . . It’s central to a town’s identity to have this central cultural institution,” Van Ness said. “I expect the same kind of success for Andrew.”
Just up the road in Gloucester, the Cape Ann Community Cinema this summer raised more than $28,000 of its $30,000 goal through Indiegogo, another fund-raising website. Donations through other channels and a matching grant meant the venue has actually brought in about $54,000, says creative director Rob Newton.
That will fund the single screen’s conversion from a limited digital system to one capable of handling all films. It will also cover a variety of other infrastructure improvements to the Main Street venue, as well as a modest raise for Newton — “I have a family now,” he notes. And it will even fund “Over Cape Ann,” a long-planned flyover film to showcase the area’s beauty.
The fund-raising tally shows that “we’ve collectively created a resource for the community that is needed, wanted, appreciated, and loved, and I’m so humbled by it,” Newton said.
Mungo is reasonably optimistic that the Screening Room campaign will be successful, but he’s hardly resting easy. He’s scheduled Sunday afternoon open houses from 2 to 4 p.m. for the four weekends of the campaign, with various talks and entertainment, the entry fee being a Kickstarter contribution of $1 or more.
If the campaign fails, Mungo, a mail carrier by day, says: “I’m not worried, I have my day job. I could live with a failure of execution, but I could not live with a failure of will. We must give it our best shot.”
The Screening Room’s Kickstarter campaign is set to begin on Friday. For a link and more information, visit www.newburyportmovies.com.