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Farewell To 35 mm Film Means Hello To Trouble For Small Theaters

Film studios are planning to replace 35 mm films with digital projectors that could cost $50,000 or more.

That’s expected to improve visual quality and reduce costs for the film studios. But owners of small, community cinemas and drive-ins are worried.

Sound of walking up steps…

Ken Begg goes up the stairs to the projection booth at The Colonial Theatre in Bethlehem.

And he begins threading 35 mm film through the loops of a projector that that is at least six decades old.

He’s getting ready for a Saturday film at a theater that has entertained the people of the North Country since 1915 when it first showed Mabel Van Buren in “The Girl of the Golden West.”

The projection equipment fills the small room. The film is coiled on a huge disc. Begg feeds it up and down and around through a series of loops.

 “This is the projector box. This is the light box. That is the power box for the light box which was upgraded many years ago. This little device here was put on for sound because this might have been used before there were talkies. Yeah, there is a lot of history. A lot of history.”

But that is going to change.

The film industry is moving towards digital projectors that are expected to provide better pictures while eliminating the higher cost of all those film prints.

Because using a digital projector is easier and requires less manpower than showing 35 mm film it may also save large big-city cinemas with multiple screens some money.

But for small, non-profit theaters, like The Colonial, the switch to digital poses a serious problem, says executive director Stephen Dignazio.

“This threatens the very existence of the Colonial and it threatens the very existence of any number of downtown, small one and two-screen movie theaters throughout the country. You are going to see a lot of movie theaters closing in this next year or two.”

It is not clear exactly when the complete switchover will take place.

And, the Motion Picture Association of America – which represents major studios - didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

But there are guesses the changeover will happen in the next couple of years and it estimated that digital projectors will cost between $40,000 and $100,000 depending on doodads such as 3D.

The prospect of the change is causing a sour blend of dread and anguish for owners of small theaters like the Rialto in Lancaster.

Greg Cloutier and David Fuller bought the Rialto at a foreclosure auction more than a year ago. They wanted to save what they saw as an important community fixture.

They say they are making a small profit.

But buying the digital equipment will require a loan.

And Cloutier says he’s worried about a fact of life everybody who ever bought the latest computer knows: Obsolescence.

“I’m concerned that we are really talking about technology that is maybe ten to fifteen years in life and we’ll have another major, capital upgrade, where the old, 35 mm projectors – this one was installed shortly after World War II – is still operating.”

In Concord the non-profit Red River Theatres need two digital projectors with the total cost expected to be between $115,000 and $150,000, says Shelly Hudson, the executive director.

But the Red River got some good news recently. The New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority awarded it $125,000 in tax credits.

“Well, that is a huge help. I mean we’re a small non-profit. Knowing that we have received $125,000 in tax credits which will net us $100,000. If we were to go with the upper tier that would mean we only need to raise $50,000 more in order to cover our costs.”

Now, Hudson says, she has to approach businesses willing to make donations and in exchange take the tax credits.

But small-for-profit theaters are not eligible for the same kind of rescue grant that Red River got.

Just across the Connecticut River in Vermont Peter and Erika Trapp worry about the future of their Fairlee Drive-In.

Drive-ins are likely to be hit particularly hard by the digital conversion.

“It is very difficult because we are only open for such a short season that for us spend $70,000 is tough. It is not like a regular movie house that is open 52 weeks a year, seven days a week and they can play three or four times on a Saturday.”

To try and raise some money the Fairlee is holding a concert fundraiser starting Sunday afternoon.

Back at the Colonial in Bethlehem Ken Begg is finishing setting up the old projector to play the night’s movie: To Rome With Love.

With the film threaded, the switches switched and the old projector humming in the background Begg pauses and says it wouldn’t be the same with a no-fuss, no-muss digital projector.

“It takes all the romance out of projecting.”

A few minutes later the 35 mm film is wending its way through the projector and the movie begins.

For NHPR News this is Chris Jensen

Ends with fade audio of the soundtrack from To Rome With Love….