Time is running out for movie theaters to upgrade to digital

In small communities like Stigler, the theater is more of a community service than a business. And the expense of upgrading theater equipment to digital — an estimated $70,000 per screen — can be overwhelming.
by Jennifer Palmer Modified: February 16, 2013 at 1:02 am •  Published: February 18, 2013

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.

Monumental costs

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.

by Jennifer Palmer
Investigative Reporter
Jennifer Palmer joined The Oklahoman staff in 2008 and, after five years on the business desk, is now digging deeper through investigative work. She's been recognized with awards in public service reporting and personal column writing. Prior to...
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