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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

— 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.

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