Local theaters face digital decision point
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Two of this area’s single-screen, independent movie houses – the Springs Theater in downtown Glenwood Springs and the Crystal Theater in Carbondale – will either have to come up with a hefty chunk of money soon to convert to a digital format, or face the possibility of closing their doors.
Theaters nationwide are faced with switching from projectors that work with reels of film to projection systems run by computers using digital prints. This expensive conversion involves changing out both the projectors and the screens.
The owners of the Springs and Crystal theaters say they hope to survive by participating in a financing deal offered by the big movie studios aimed at helping independent theaters cover the overwhelming cost of the conversions.
The manager of Movies in the Mall in the Glenwood Springs Mall in West Glenwood told the Post Independent this week that she is already planning to make the digital conversion.
The Brenden Theater Rifle 7, which opened in late 2011 and replaced Rifle’s old single-screen theater, was built with digital projection systems at the beginning, according to Bruce Coleman, vice president of operations for the Brenden Theatres chain, based in Modesto, Calif.
The conversion process, according to those dealing with it, can cost up to $100,000 per screen. It is necessary because the film industry expects that within the coming few years, every movie distributed in the country will be in a digital format.
For big chains that own thousands of theaters, such as AMC Entertainment, Carmike or Cinemark, this expense might not be insurmountable.
But for small, independent theaters, such as the Crystal and the Springs, the costs are essentially show-stoppers and present the owners with a dramatic dilemma in the face of advancing digital movie projection technology.
“Most of the people that are in my situation are probably going to ride off into the sunset,” warned John Buxman, owner of the Springs Theater, 915 Grand Avenue in downtown Glenwood Springs.
Buxman, 52, has owned the Springs Theater for nearly three decades, though for the past five years or so he has relied on Leonard Dean to manage the nightly projection duties.
“He is extraordinarily committed to that theater,” Buxman said of Dean. “If it weren’t for him, that theater would not be there.”
Buxman said the conversion, which the industry has been discussing for years, is an inevitability as far as he can see, given the fact that so much of today’s movie technology is either digital already or headed in that direction.
“My understanding is, at this point, you have to go digital or go away,” he said.
Describing his theater’s business model, Buxman said, “We are in a very unique situation.” The Springs is an independent theater rather than part of a chain, and it’s single-screen theater located downtown instead of at a mall.
The Springs is a one-screen theater showing first-run movies in the center of a highly competitive entertainment region, with competing multiplex theaters in Rifle, Glenwood Springs and El Jebel.
“We could be one of fewer than a dozen of that sort that are left,” he said, based on conversations he has had with booking agents and others in the industry.
Buxman is hopeful that the financing offer from Hollywood studios will make a digital conversion affordable.
“Overall, I’m excited to take the Springs and turn it into a digital theater and take it into the future,” he said.
“We will convert,” stated Sonja Davis, manager of the West Glenwood Mall and of the Movies at the Mall. The tri-plex theater is also planning to tap into the studio-backed assistance program, which involves a payback within five years.
The theater is owned by Frank Woods of Aspen, who also owns the mall itself.
“It is a very spendy process,” Davis said. “We’re being told it’s still a couple years out.”
Once the financing is in place, she said, the physical conversion is expected to happen quickly.
“It looks like it’ll be pretty much an overnight thing,” she said, so the theater will not have to shut down.
Bob and Kathy Ezra have operated the single-screen Crystal Theater in downtown Carbondale for 27 years. Bob Ezra said he, too, is worried about the costs involved in the conversion process.
Ezra currently operates with a projection system made in 1952 that was previously used in a theater in Meeker.
Assuming that he goes ahead with conversion to digital, he chuckled and said of his 60-year old projector, “I’m going to memorialize it.”
Ezra said he’d been told that 65 to 70 percent of the theaters in the U.S. still use film, and that the nationwide conversion will take years to be complete. He said he has already started working on the issue.
“We’ve got a couple of things we’re working on that might make it less painful,” he said of the conversion process. He discussed the changeover with industry representatives at a theater trade show earlier this year.
“There wasn’t one film booth,” he said of the trade show. “It was all digital.”
The new technology eliminates the need for a projectionist, as the film display process is programmed into a computer that is linked to a server operated by the film distributors, he explained.
“It’s all very secretive,” he said.
Technological requirements are still evolving, he said, and the price tag for the conversions could be dropping to perhaps $50,000 or $60,000 per screen.
But Ezra still views the digital conversion as a make-or-break proposition.
“Either we’re going to figure out a way to pay for it, or we’re going to be done,” he said.
Buxman, Ezra, Davis and Coleman all said they are working on what is called the “virtual print fees” funding program, in which film studios have signed on to help theaters meet the high cost of conversion.
According to MKPE Consulting of Calabasas, Calif., which tracks digital-cinema issues, the studios stand to save significant amounts of money in the conversion process, because digital prints are cheaper to make than film.
Brenden’s Coleman said the electrical requirements of the digital projectors are very similar to the requirements of the old film projectors.
He said the Brenden chain has already converted perhaps eight of its older theaters from film to digital.
“Ours went very smoothly,” he said of those conversions. He credited part of that to Hollywood studios “contributing financially to the digital conversion.”
But for those who have not yet made the change, it’s a daunting proposition.
“It’s really a sea change,” said Ezra at the Crystal. “It’s as big as when sound came in.”
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