Go digital or go dark

“We were in denial about it for awhile,” said Columbian Theater co-owner Jeanine Fairchild of the sea change that’s swept the movie industry over the past five years, leaving small, independent theaters like the Columbian in its wake.

“But it’s here and we’re embracing it.”

The major movie studios’ recent push toward digital distribution and projection has irreparably altered the movie theater landscape, forcing smaller theaters to either go digital or go dark; Astoria’s historic single-screen theater has chosen the former.

Fairchild and her staff have given themselves until Labor Day to raise the $50,000 they need to purchase a used digital projector, a decision they announced earlier this month with a short, staff-created music video that screens before each evening’s 7 p.m. feature.

The video clip, which is the centerpiece of the Columbian’s Kickstarter online fundraising campaign, has already generated a great response from theatergoers.

“It’s been really good,” Fairchild said. “A lot of people have been handing us money as they leave the theater – even people from out of town.”

Fairchild and other independent theater owners have known digital conversion was in the offing for over 10 years, but the need to adapt intensified when the major movie studios struck a deal with movie theaters – a deal that benefited the major theater chains like Regal and AMC.

Traditionally, movie studios and theaters split distribution costs down the middle. The new deal said this: “the studio would deduct their half and put it toward digital,” according to Fairchild.

The arrangement benefited the studio and theater behemoths, who were spending massive sums to ship crates of film across the globe, and undercut small theater owners like Fairchild, who only needs one film per week.

From 1999, the year “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” debuted digitally, to 2011, the number of U.S. cinema sites dropped from 7,477 to 5,697, a one-quarter decrease, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.

As a second-run theater, the Columbian is used to handling well-worn reels that have seen a couple trips through the first-run, $12-a-seat theaters. That began to change.

“We really saw the writing on the wall when we got a brand-new print,” Fairchild said. “That was when we got really scared.”

Sending brand-new prints to single-screen, second-run theaters? “They ain’t going to do that for long,” she said with a laugh.

Adapting to a digital world

Small theaters across Oregon have been forced to adapt to the realities of this digital world – or accept the often calamitous consequences.

Scott Hicks, the president and founder of Portland-based American Cinema Equipment, has seen the impact that digital conversion has had on small-town theaters, citing the single-screen theater in Burns as an example.

“We had a technician who was driving through Burns and wanted to stop by and say hi,” he said. “There was a sign on the door that said ‘No movie this week because we couldn’t get a 35-millimeter print.’”

Two other small Oregon theaters – Florence Cinemas in Florence and the Pine Theater in Prineville – recently faced the same digital dilemma as the Columbian. Florence Cinemas closed its doors July 14 and American Cinema Equipment will convert the Pine to digital in two weeks, according to Hicks.

Though the digital conversion business has been good for Hicks’ company, he misses the old days.

“There is no romance to watching a digital film projector,” Hicks said. “We are an IT company now. We used to be a motion-picture company.”

Since he founded American Cinema Equipment in 1995, Hicks has watched the transformation unfold.

“Our business used to be 98-percent film,” he said, “and now it’s 99-percent digital projection.”

Hicks’ company has long serviced the Columbian, and he called Fairchild earlier this year with news: there was a used digital projector available for $50,000, a far more reasonable price than a few years prior, when digital projectors could not be leased and could only be purchased new.

When Fairchild heard that, she thought, “Let’s go for it,” she said.

The timing was right: most in the industry estimate that 35-millimeter film will be dead soon.

“Ultimately it will probably happen in the next year or year and a half,” said Doug Whyte, the executive director for Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, a nonprofit venue that went digital earlier this month. The Hollywood’s nonprofit status allowed Whyte and company to fund much of their digital conversion through grants.

For those theaters that can’t turn to grant writing, online fund raising efforts like the Columbian’s are vital.

“I think Kickstarter has been a savior,” Whyte said. “A lot of theaters are doing it.”

End of an era

Josh Baer, who opened the next-door Voodoo Room in 2001, became a projectionist at the Columbian in 2005. He has been enamored with film since an early age.

“My grandfather worked in Hollywood and I was always fascinated by the filmmaking process and movies,” he said.

Up in the Columbian’s projection booth, Baer pointed out the fireproof front wall – the old nitrate film was highly flammable – and the toilet tucked away in the corner, which was required by the projectionists’ union.

These vestiges of a bygone era, when projectionists were skilled, unionized tradesmen, connect contemporary practicioners like Baer with their film forebears.

“It’s so romantic,” he said.

As he fed film through the projector for that night’s screening of “Now You See Me,” Baer seemed to revel in the tactile experience of working a projector.

“It’s so sexy”, he said. Once they convert to digital, “It’s just going to be circuit boards and stuff.”

This is one of the difficulties that comes with the dawn of digital: working with what is essentially a very complicated, very expensive computer.

“Now we’re dealing with a high-tech device that, unless you’re a computer guru, has now user-serviceable parts,” Scott Hicks said. “It’s very specialized.”

Ever since Fairchild and Uriah Hulsey purchased the theater in 1997, the staff has been able to handle much of the maintenance in-house.

“This we know how to fix,” Fairchild said, motioning to the old 35-millimeter projector. “A computer is a whole different thing.”

Though they were long reluctant to make the switch, Fairchild and her staff know that it’s time for a change.

“We’re accepting reality,” she said, noting that a new digital projector would bring with it as yet untapped opportunities.

“We’re going to have a lot more options for what we can do up there,” Fairchild said, mentioning that digital could allow her to screen big events like the Academy Awards or independent releases from regional filmmakers. “Hopefully it’ll be a good thing for the town.”

Fairchild also stressed that converting to digital won’t change the Columbian’s ethos – or the moviegoing experience.

The previews will have “none of those commercials,” Fairchild said. “No car commercials!”

The Daily Astorian, 7.30.13. Link: http://goo.gl/k9zJgb

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