New century of cinema
Advocates of digital projection technology have clearly won Hollywood’s battle for the celluloid heart of cinema.
Film production companies no longer distribute traditional celluloid prints. The 100-year-old medium rarely used to make movies today is headed the way of vinyl, Betamax and the eight-track tape.
“This new distribution method requires a digital cinema projector, which costs an average of $60,000 to $70,000 each,” said Kathy Green, Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade spokeswoman, in a news release.
Many small, independent theaters unable to pay the cost of conversion risk extinction unless they make the jump to digital, Green said.
UPFRONT COST, LONG-RUN SAVINGS
The new method is much cheaper than the old-fashioned process, which called for giant reels of 35 mm film to be delivered to theater owners, each print costing about $1,500 to make, according to an April 12, 2012, article in LA Weekly.
“Multiply that by 4,000 copies—one for each movie on each screen in each multiplex around the country—and the numbers start to get ugly. By comparison, putting out a digital copy costs a mere $150,” reporter Gendy Alimurung wrote.
Digital projectors are equipped to download hard drives and require a digital key supplied by the distributor to unscramble the recording before the movie can be shown, said Jeanne Dewsnup, owner of Delta’s Egyptian Theater since 1966.
Art film supporters, recognizing the threat, coalesced earlier this month to announce a small grant program tailored for independent movie houses grasping for a lifeline.
The Rural Theater Digital Conversion Grant program, spearheaded by the state office of economic development, gives up to $30,000 in matching funds to qualifying independent theaters.
If its application is approved, Grand Junction’s Avalon Theatre will receive up to $20,000 in grant money from the program, enough to pay half the replacement cost of an up-to-date digital projector for its film presentations, said Avalon Theatre Foundation Development Director Robin Brown.
“For us, it was very convenient, because this transition happened during our capital campaign,” Brown said. “It couldn’t have worked out better. Most theaters are really, really scrambling to come up with (matching funds).”
Many independent theaters are turning to online investment vehicles like Kickstarter to raise the money they need to buy digital projectors, she said.
As of Wednesday, Kickstarter listed 16 investment funds created by movie theater owners and film societies, including the Denver Film Society, seeking $16,000 to $180,000 to buy digital projectors.
Of those, eight succeeded in raising the desired funds so far and five fell short. TRANSITION ALREADY
The grant program comes too late for several independent Western Slope movie theaters that saw the writing on the wall when James Cameron’s “Avatar” broke box office records in 2009.
“The 3-D blockbuster could only be shown via digital projectors and so the first wave of theaters upgraded in a hurry,” Alimurung wrote in LA Weekly.
That wave included the Egyptian in Delta and the Fox and San Juan theaters in Montrose, which together borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars at commercial rates to complete their conversion. The Rural Theater Digital Conversion Grant program did not exist when those theaters converted.
“We sure would have liked to have gotten in on that,” said Michael Hunter, owner of the Fox and San Juan since 1975.
The Egyptian, which first opened in 1928, exhibits an architectural style inspired by King Tut’s tomb, a popular trend that influenced movie theaters across the nation after the tomb was discovered in 1922.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Egyptian borrowed $90,000 to buy a digital recorder nearly five years ago, Dewsnup said.
“That made us able to show 3-D movies,” Dewsnup said. “We went from reels and carbon arc (lamps) and then we graduated to ... platters. After that, the next step was digital.”
Hunter said he obtained a business loan from Wells Fargo Bank for $480,000 to buy six projectors.
“We took on an extra $12,000 a month in debt,” he said.
Incentive fees paid by distributors that encourage theater owners to play first-run movies from digital hard drives made the loans affordable, Hunter said.
“I don’t know that it’s helped business,” he said. “If people want to see the movie, they come. And if they don’t, they don’t. I know it’s a much-improved presentation. No scratches. It’s a better picture. Left to right, top to bottom, it’s perfect.”