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Digital film switch daunts historic movie houses

The license plate on movie projectionist Arnie Herdendorf's Buick is 35MM MAN, a nod to his work in the booth at the 1925 Palace Theatre, with its velvet-draped stage and chandeliered mezzanine.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The license plate on movie projectionist Arnie Herdendorf's Buick is 35MM MAN, a nod to his work in the booth at the 1925 Palace Theatre, with its velvet-draped stage and chandeliered mezzanine.

When he drove recently to a multiplex to watch as its film projectors were swapped out for new digital ones, the sight of old 35 mm workhorses "stacked up like wounded soldiers" had him wondering how long his title — or job — would be around.

The questions are even bigger for historic movie houses themselves.

With the future of motion pictures headed quickly toward an all-digital format played only on pricey new equipment, will the theaters be around? Or will they be done in by the digital revolution that will soon render inadequate the projectors that have flickered and ticked with a little-changed technology for more than 120 years?

"Our guess is by the end of 2013 there won't be any film distributed anymore," said John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Association of Theater Owners.

The Hollywood studios' industry-wide conversion from 35 mm film to digital satisfies modern-day demands for crisp clarity, cost savings and special effects like 3-D. And for big-budget theaters where new releases occupy multiple screens, installing digital projectors is a no-brainer. Already, about 60 percent have converted in the United States, at a price of $70,000 to $80,000 a screen, Fithian said.

But for the community-owned Palace and other small and historic movie houses, the merging of nostalgia with high-tech is a dauntingly expensive proposition. Yet one, most agree, that is critical if they are to keep attracting audiences to their light bulb-studded marquees. The cost is more than double the price of a top-of-the-line film projector.

"The Riviera Theatre is listed on the historic register, but we are not a museum," Executive Director Frank Cannata said from the 1927 theater north of Buffalo, "so it's important that we stay current ... and staying current isn't always affordable, as we're all finding out."

An estimated 500 to 750 historic theaters currently show movies, according to the Theatre Historical Society of America, though it adds no one has formally researched the number and the estimate is conservative.

"This is another major threat to these theaters which were largely rescued and restored by grass-roots local efforts," said Karen Colizzi Noonan, president of the THS, which records and preserves theaters' architectural and cultural history. "It is so sad that after all that hard work and dedication these groups now face another huge challenge just to survive."

And survival means doing whatever they can to raise the cash to convert.

Supporters of the privately owned Davis Theatre in Higginsville, Mo., are vying for a $50,000 prize in a Reader's Digest contest that would help pay for digital equipment for the 500-seat main auditorium. They were in second place at the start of February, with a month of voting to go.

"It's a long haul but it's encouraging to see a town come together," said Fran Schwarzer, who, with her husband, George, was nearing retirement age and sunk their savings into buying the 1934 theater to keep it from closing in 1998.

The couple added three screens in 2005 so they could show more first-run movies, always viewing the venture as more community service than money-maker in the small town east of Kansas City.

"If we had known then what we know now" about the swift onset of digital, "we would never have gone into debt more to put in three more auditoriums," Schwarzer said.

The Riviera will show movies with its two carbon arc lamphouses and projectors for as long as it can, Cannata said, while exploring funding for the digital replacements. If it can't, it will have to do away with the popular second-run movies offered at discount rates.

While live shows and other programming would keep the Riviera going, other theaters are trying to stave off closing with fundraisers, like the taco supper planned to raise money for the Onarga Theater in eastern Illinois. The 1937 theater that boasts being the first south of Chicago to show movies with sound has invested in its seating, concessions and sound systems in recent years, but can't afford the switch to digital projection.

North of Buffalo, the nonprofit, community-owned Palace is looking into loans and grants for a $75,000 digital set up, but it's also going to have to upgrade its electrical system to accommodate the new equipment, said Phil Czarnecki, vice president of the board. He can't help but think of all the restoration of the building — a replica of the Paramount Theater in New York City that mixes Art Deco and Italian Renaissance style — that could be accomplished with such an outlay.

The small theaters already are feeling pressure from the digital conversions taking place all around them. Instead of waiting three weeks for a modern multiplex to make a movie print available, it now often takes six or seven weeks because there are fewer 35 mm copies in circulation. That's more than enough time for the pool of potential ticket-buyers to lose interest or see the movie somewhere else.

It's not just the cost of digital projection that concerns Edward Summer, president of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. He worries that once older movie houses make the switch, they'll do away with their 35 mm projectors, something he says would be "a hideous mistake."

Summer sees a potential tourism niche in historic theaters showing classic movies — and he worries that existing films that won't be digitized will be forever lost to audiences if the equipment isn't there to show them.

"Every motion picture made between 1894 and right this minute is on 35 mm film and those films not only still exist, but those film prints are the only way to see them," Summer said.

"It's not either/or," Summer said of the two projection technologies, "it's both/and."

The Palace's Herdendorf doesn't own a computer and isn't sure if his 17 years of splicing and dicing reels of film and threading them through a platter projection system will translate to the new technology with its pocket-size hard drives. He knows what to do if film breaks, but not if a computer freezes.

The Riviera eventually plans to display one of its 35 mm carbon arc projectors in the lobby, Cannata said, "so people can take a look at how films were shown at one time."

The Davis Theatre's Schwarzer jokes that her place's four projectors will become boat anchors. What's important, she said, is that the theater's doors stay open.

"We have such wonderful memories of this theater as children," she said. "You kind of like to think that kids that come now will have some of those memories, too."