Cinemas focus on next generation

Small-town movie theaters weigh digital conversion costs

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With real life encroaching on reel life, small-town movie theaters are scrambling to keep their screens from going dark.

The digital age is threatening the future of century-old movie houses like Tipton’s Hardacre Theater, which keep entertainment and dining dollars at home, instead of funneling them into nearby cities and multiplexes.

Tipton residents are rallying at home and abroad to raise as much as $300,000 to $400,000 to buy the 1916 Hardacre building, renovate its interior and pull it into the new century by getting rid of 35mm films and buying a digital projection system. A purchase agreement of $96,100 is in place to buy the privately owned building from the local Virginia Cook family.

A new seven-member, all-volunteer Hardacre Theater Preservation Association is hard at work raising funds and meeting with an architect to firm up plans.

“If things go well, we should have everything ready to go on or before Oct. 1,” said Greg Brown of Tipton, president of the preservation group, which is applying for non-profit status.

“We’ve got a long road ahead, in terms of purchasing the theater, but digital equipment is a very, very important first step,” said board member Will Valet of Tipton.

Valet is the director of the annual Hardacre Film Festival, which puts the venue and the town in the national and international spotlight. He also serves as communications director for the preservation association and is hoping to appeal for financial support from the independent film community that has been flocking to Iowa’s oldest film festival the past 15 years.

“It’s gonna be full-steam-ahead for the next 10 months,” Valet said.

Fundraising already has started on the local level. Even before the sale was planned, Valet said Tipton middle schoolers sold T-shirts and raised about $1,000 toward renovations.

“It’s an example of all levels of the community coming together to make this happen,” Valet said.

Many other avenues are being explored, including grants and donations. The building is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, which brings subsequent funding opportunities, and donations can be made right now through the preservation group’s new website.

Single-screen cinemas in Mount Vernon and Vinton and the five-screen Collins Road Theatres in Cedar Rapid already have made the digital leap, at considerable expense. The going rate is between $80,000 and $100,000 to purchase and install the equipment that brings crisper sound and cleaner pictures to the screens.

Vinton’s community-owned Palace Theatre, which opened with silent movies in 1915, converted to digital projections in 2010. Manager Marcy Horst of Vinton said they paid $80,000 for the equipment, screen and sound upgrades, with an additional $40,000 for the gear to lift the screen to accommodate plays staged there. Other recent improvements include a lobby redesign, new seats and remodeled premium seating in the balcony.

Collins Road Theatres in Cedar Rapids went digital this year. Owner Bruce Taylor of Cedar Rapids declined to say how much he paid to flip the switch in May, but said he was able to save some money by purchasing used equipment. In addition to buying five projectors, he also bought two screens to handle 3-D films.

“Most people don’t even notice the difference,” he said, “but some people who are moviephiles have noticed that the picture is nice and clear and sharp, with no scratches or dirt.”

Beyond aesthetics, digital projection is becoming a necessity, not a luxury.

“More and more movie theaters are going digital. The number of prints being made is decreasing,” said Jerry Sheehy, who has owned the Bijou Movie Theater in Mount Vernon with his wife, Cheryl, for 10 years. They went digital in February.

“By last October (2011), we had a lot of trouble finding a movie to play. Every week it was a mad scramble. ... We only do G, PG and PG-13 movies at our place — we don’t do any of the rated-R movies — so the pickings were a little slim. We had to change. (So) we went over to the Palace Theatre in Vinton, because they have a very nice digital system.

“I had seen digital before and wasn’t impressed,” Sheehy said. “The second-generation projectors are very nice — very bright, very clean, and have good color contrast and sound system. I said, ‘I’ve seen what I needed to see — that’s a great picture, great sound.’ The technology has evolved to the point where that’s now an acceptable picture. And it was time to do it.”

Sheehy, a senior marketing manager at Rockwell Collins, takes his side business seriously.

“I did my MBA on this,” he said. “There were about 43 movie theaters in small towns in Iowa back around 2003. I’m certain it’s fewer today — I know three or four that closed because they didn’t want to invest in this. It’s one of those things where you’ve gotta make that decision, do you want to be in the business or not?”

He said he’s pleased with his investment, which cost “just shy” of $80,000.

“Audiences love it,” he said. “When we first converted to digital, I had customers come by and the expression was always, ‘Wow.’ It’s a better picture with digital. We also upgraded to a 12-speaker Dolby surround sound system. That was well-received, too. It really does add to the experience.”

He financed privately through a bank, and gets some help from the Virtual Print Fees program, which pays him a fee every time he shows a first-run film. It’s much cheaper for distributors to produce and ship digital versions, which theaters then upload and send back, than to make 35mm films for every theater, he said.

“I’ve been very happy with it, all in all,” Sheehy said. “Obviously, I wish the studios would have helped us a little bit more on this — but it helps us make that payment every month.”

He had to change his business model to enroll in the Virtual Print Fees program that applies to first-run films.

Previously, the Bijou showed second-run movies, with a couple of new titles each year. Now it shows about a dozen first-run films, with the others being just three or four weeks old.

“Every operator has to make that decision. ... There’s still plenty of (35mm) prints being struck, but there are a lot of rumors in the industry as to how much longer they’re going to make prints,” he said. “There’s some scare tactics are going on, but so far it’s been good for us. We’ve had very positive responses from our customers — they like the picture, like the sound.

“It was a good move for us. Business has been good,” Sheehy said. “Because we’re opening more movies, we’re getting more attendance. We’re doing well enough.”

He’s willing to offer advice and a voice of experience to other operators weighing the digital dilemma.

“If there’s anything I can do and answer some questions, I’m happy to talk to anybody,” he said.

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