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The Digital Death of Small Town Movie Theaters

February 28, 2012

Here’s link to an article about the unseen side of the digital transition from 35mm prints to digital distribution: the end of small theatres.

Here’s how film distribution worked for the last 100 years: distributors shipped heavy 35mm film prints to theatres who showed them, then shipped them back when they were finished. That system worked fantastically until around the 70’s-80’s, when two things happened: blockbuster films and megaplex theatres. Before the 80’s, movies would start screening in the big cities, then move their prints to the smaller ones once they’d finished their runs in the large theatres. Growing up in Greenville, OH, we’d get movies a month or two after they opened in Dayton (the cultural mecca that I’m sure everyone’s familiar with).

This worked well because distributors only had to make a certain number of prints for a film right off, then once they saw if it was successful or not, they could decide to make more prints based on demand. It made sense until blockbusters and megaplexes meant that more theatres needed multiple prints of films, and having a film the weekend it opened became more important. Suddenly thousands of prints of “Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo” were bring made, and somebody realized that there must be a better way.

And there is: digital projection. I’m a huge fan. Digital projection means that every print of a film is like seeing it for the first time. Remember when film prints used to snap or burn in the projector? I didn’t see the boulder in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark until we (finally!) got a VCR at my house and paid the $40 club membership fee to join a video rental club. That was a long time ago… But the Raiders film snapped in the projector and that scene got screwed up as we sat waiting for the projectionist to fix it. So I never saw it in a theatre.

Digital projection also means that all you need to do to show “Casablanca” on a Tuesday night anywhere in the world is an internet connection. Suddenly, smaller films can show anywhere, and actually get an audience because no one really wants to go see Gigli on a Monday night, after everyone’s realized it’s bad. Theatres can show anything they want whenever they want. Back to the Future marathon, anyone?

The problem is that a 35mm projector was around $20,000, and a new digital system is over $60,000.  Most of the mom-and-pop theatres that exist in small towns everywhere can’t upgrade. How many theatres are there that only exist because there’s no new investment that needs to be made? They’ve got the equipment, and as long as nothing breaks, they’re making enough money to scrape by? Turns out, a lot of them. As many as 1,000. That’s a lot of Greenville, Ohio’s.

So who cares, in this world of the big screen at home?

I rarely go out to see a movie on the big screen. In fact, Kat and I recently finished phase 1 of turning our upstairs into a screening room. Beyond having an almost 2-year old who keeps us at home, I usually don’t enjoy going to a movie theatre – there’s usually something wrong with the projection or volume, and there’s rarely someone in the audience who doesn’t annoy me. I’ve turned into that grumpy old guy who’d rather wait for the DVD and watch it at home. I’m sure there are quite a few of me, and theatres and distributors are aware of this.

But I’m a huge fan of the theatres themselves. I love going into a tiny town and seeing their crappy little theatre. It’s a weird fascination of mine to check out where the movie theatre is and how it survives. What did it used to be (which I guess will soon become “what will it be next?”)?

And those small theatres, that would probably benefit the most from digital projections and being able to show different films on different nights of the week, will shutter before they can make the transition. The distributors haven’t given a hard cut-off date, yet, but soon they won’t be sending out 35mm film prints anymore.

The beginning of the sound era had a similar moment – “convert or die.” It was the small theatres that pushed for sound because they couldn’t compete with the big movie palaces and their orchestras and sound effects men. But with the tech of amplification in the late 1920’s, sound films sometimes even sounded better in the small houses than they did in the palaces.

We’re at that same point – convert or die is the theme of the article I read.

But what if communities banded together to save their movie theatres? How much revenue is created by a night at the movies? How many restaurants will close because there’s no one going to dinner and a movie in their town anymore? I’ve been reading about a few cities that have been subsidizing their movie theatres to help keep them afloat because of the good it does the community.

Anybody got any better ideas?

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  1. March 29, 2012 at 2:30 pm
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