STIGLER — At least three paying customers are needed before the Time Theatre will run a movie, and there have been nights when Stigler resident Mitzi Woodson bought an extra ticket just so she and her husband could sit down for a show.
The theater, on the corner of Main Street and Broadway, appears a little rough around the edges. But tickets are just $6 for adults and $4 for children, and the caramel popcorn is legendary. Inside the theater's only auditorium, the seats are worn and some are held together with duct tape. Handwritten signs are hung above painted wood paneling on the walls, an attempt to enforce rules like “keep your feet off the seats.”
But the real issue with the Time Theatre has nothing to do with seats or walls. It's the projection system, which plays 35 millimeter film reels — an industry medium nearly extinct as Hollywood moves into the digital age.
Late last year, Woodson learned the theater's owners were planning to close rather than invest the $100,000 needed for a new digital projection system and sound equipment. She is leading an effort in the community of less than 2,700 to raise the money needed to save the theater.
In two months, they've collected more than half of what they need. But time is running out. In recent days, the theater was shuttered because there was no movie to show. Film in that format is getting harder and harder to find.
Time is now
Switching to digital saves movie studios big bucks. Rather than producing flicks on film reels and shipping them to theaters, they transfer digital versions of the film onto a reusable hard drive. Major studios like 20th Century Fox said 2012 would be the last year they would offer movies on film.
Fifteen years ago, talk of converting to digital began at the urging of some filmmakers and movie producers, who wanted their films shown digitally because of its better quality, said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners. The industry is expected to save $1 billion a year by no longer producing film prints.
Of the 5,700 for-profit movie theaters nationwide, 67 percent are now digital and 84 percent of the nation's 39,838 screens have converted to digital, Corcoran said.
An unknown number closed when faced with the expense.
Conversion costs an average of $70,000 per screen. In most cases, theater owners need to upgrade not only the projection system but also the sound equipment and the screen. They may also need to alter the projection booth to allow more ventilation, since the digital equipment runs hot, Corcoran said.
But it's absolutely necessary to stay in business.
“If they want to continue showing first-run movies, they need to convert,” he said.
In small towns like Stigler, where the theater is more of a community service than a moneymaker and the owners often wear multiple hats (the Time Theatre's owners also operate a hardware store; in nearby Poteau, population 8,500, the theater's owner is also the fire chief) paying for the conversion is a monumental task.
Annette Cariker and her husband purchased the Time Theatre in 1998, although the City of Stigler owns the building. When they learned they'd have to convert to digital, they didn't want to take out a loan for the equipment and decided to close. But they've agreed to continue operating the theater if money for the equipment is raised (it, too, will be owned by the city and leased back to the Carikers.)
Jon Pickel, who owns the Poteau Theatre and the city's Tower Drive-In, converted each of his four screens in April. It cost him about $80,000 per screen — a “tremendous amount” — which he financed through a loan. But the decision was not whether or not to make the move to digital, he says.
“The decision was whether or not I wanted to be in the theater business,” he said. “My wife and I thought about it for a long time. We decided to change it into a modern theater.”
As a result, ticket prices were raised. But in exchange, his customers are receiving a higher quality presentation, Pickel said. Moviegoers most often comment on the sound, which was upgraded to 5.1 digital surround sound.
At the Tower Drive-In, however, customers notice the screen, which now looks like a 70-foot wide plasma TV, he said. There were other advantages, too. The brighter picture means he can start movies a little before dusk.
To help defray the costs of digital conversion, theater owners were offered a Virtual Print Fee, a subsidy paid by a film distributor per booking of a movie. Not all theater owners chose to access the Virtual Print Fee and those that did will see it paid out over many years, Corcoran said.
All theater owners, however, have to purchase their equipment up front. While many chose to finance the cost through a business loan, others used methods such as community development grants and Kickstarter, an online forum to gather funding for creative projects. Some, like the Time Theatre in Stigler, are relying on direct donations.
Woodson said she is so proud of her community, from the child who gave $14 to the donors who committed thousands.
She set a deadline of March 31 and has designed T-shirts and is planning events like a golf tournament, pancake breakfast and a musical as fundraisers.
She says if a small town like Stigler can save their theater, others can too.
“We encourage other communities to do this for their theater,” she said.