As analog film grows obsolete, Western towns struggle to keep theaters afloat


One snowy evening over the holidays, I sat down for a beer with screenwriter Susan Shilliday ("Legends of the Fall"), who moved from Los Angeles to rural western Massachusetts eight years ago to run a used bookstore. We were discussing how difficult it is for independent booksellers to stay in business when Susan brought up a similar challenge faced by her first love: cinema. The theater in a nearby college town had recently closed, she told me, and many others are on the brink.

I’m a diehard bookworm and not much of a movie buff, so while I’ve pined for small, independent bookstores since watching Meg Ryan’s character lose hers in 1998’s "You’ve Got Mail," I hadn’t realized that small theaters are equally endangered. According to Rolling Stone, more than 1,000 rural theaters are at risk of closing in the next few years, and hundreds more have already shut their doors. The threat isn’t so much competition from giant multiplexes (though that’s an issue, too): It’s the cost of retrofitting old facilities to meet new digital standards.

As I write this, a Hollywood revolution is quietly unfolding: 35-mm film, the iconic medium that captured Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, is becoming obsolete. The change began in 2002, when a coalition of big studios got together to create new digital parameters for the industry. Digital films are less expensive to produce ($150 per copy compared to $1,500), and studios can save billions each year by going digital. By the mid-2000s, only a few hundred theaters worldwide were capable of playing digital films, but with the digital-only release of "Avatar" in 2009, scores converted to be able to screen the 3D hit.

The Fox Theater, Walsenburg, Colo.
For corporate multiplexes, the $40,000 to $75,000 per screen required for digitization wasn’t a problem. Yet for small theaters, the change can be catastrophic.

As of this year, Hollywood will begin releasing movies almost solely in digital format, meaning theaters that haven’t converted will be left in the dust. It’s rare that Hollywood’s actions reverberate through the rural West, but the switch to digital has given remote Western towns more reasons to worry for their future. “They’re … forcing people to convert or close,” says Amy DeLuca, program director for the 89-year-old Paradise Theater in Paonia, Colo., High Country News’ hometown. “It would be a tragic loss (for the town) if we can’t keep the theater open.”

People want to support local theaters as anchors of the community, Shilliday says, but even the most loyal patronage can’t offset the cost of installing new projectors, screens and sound systems into the funky old buildings that have long been mainstays in places like Paonia or Eatonville, Wash., another town that’s had to scramble to save its theater by converting to digital.

Rather than watch the screens go dark, though, many theaters – and towns – are taking action. At Brewvies, a cinema-pub in Salt Lake City, general manager Wayne Shipley created a Kickstarter campaign last fall to fund the purchase of a digital projector and screen. His tactic garnered so much publicity that he was able to cancel his Kickstarter account and raise $70,000 through private contributions. “We had people from Massachusetts to California donate,” he says. “Some people donated up to $5,000.”

Brewvies doesn’t just show movies; it also donates the use of its screens to non-profits for fundraisers, and serves as a community gathering space. “We (show) American Hustle, then have a fundraiser for the Girl Scouts then a backcountry ski film festival,” Shipley says. “That’s why I love to work here. We play a unique role in the community.”

The state of Colorado agrees: In September, its Office of Economic Development announced $200,000 in grants to help rural theaters stay in business. Together with a non-profit initiative called Save Our Screens, 13 cinemas statewide have been targeted for assistance, including Paonia’s Paradise, which received a $20,000 matching grant from the state and is planning its own fundraising campaign to raise the additional $20,000. “The theater is vital to our local economy,” DeLuca says.

State funding for mom-and-pop businesses is rare, however, and in most places the burden of staying afloat falls on the theater alone. Dozens have held successful Kickstarter campaigns, others have formed regional coalitions, and the National Trust Preservation Fund offers grants to certain theaters that meet its criteria. Yet even as some theaters buckle under the overhead costs of modernization, others are riding a wave of nostalgia. The State Theatre, a 1920’s movie house in Sioux Falls, S.D., for example, is undergoing a $3 million structural and digital renovation to serve moviegoers who want a more memorable experience than they can get filing into the town’s charmless multiplexes. Los Angeles Film Festival associate director Doug Jones told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that “there’s a movement (across the country) to re-create some of that old glory to other single-screen movie palaces.”

Will there come a day when old 35-mm projectors and film reels become as hip as vinyl records are today? Shipley, the manager at Brewvies, isn’t betting against it. “Digital films will eventually take over,” he says. “But what’s hard as a business is throwing something away that there’s no need to throw away. We may keep one around…” he says before trailing off. “You just never know.”

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2. Photograph courtesy the Fox Theatre/Huerfano County Youth and Arts Foundation.

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