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Drive-ins, theaters making costly conversion to digital

Saturday, April 13, 2013
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The sign outside the Malta Drive-In on Route 9 offers a coming attraction - the Malta, like other small and outdoor theaters in the area - is upgrading to a digital projection system.
The sign outside the Malta Drive-In on Route 9 offers a coming attraction - the Malta, like other small and outdoor theaters in the area - is upgrading to a digital projection system.

— Ed Caro saw the thick cables, color-coded wires, computer servers and metal lamp house — all parts of a new black and silver digital projection system at the Malta Drive-In.

“It’s expensive, and it doesn’t make you any more money,” said Caro, who with his brother Tom owns the dual-screen movie park surrounded by pine trees on Route 9. “The only thing it does — if you want to be in this business a couple years from now, you’ve got to have it. Or else you’re going to be out of business.”

The last picture show — for 35-millimeter celluloid film — was held at Malta last autumn. When people visit the 550-spot outdoor movie center this spring and summer, all images on screen will come from two new digital projectors that employ computer technology. Hollywood studios and film producers are phasing out film prints.

While major movie theater chains have already made the switch, some area businesses are just beginning digital conversions. Drive-ins like Malta are now making $75,000 investments, or have recently upgraded. Small theaters — many of them family-owned — are looking for ways to raise money to keep the lights out in their movie houses.

Jay Pregent, who co-owns Albany’s Madison Theater and whose Delmar-based Pregent Visual Productions installs digital systems, said new equipment is necessary because film will be

gone — eventually. “I know some of the studios said by this spring, by now, we would have no more film, like Fox and Warner Brothers,” Pregent said, taking a break from his work on a 5-foot-tall, 311-pound projector at Malta.

But deadlines seem to be flexible. Some theaters are still getting multiple canisters of film that will put a two-hour movie on the screen. Film manufacturers are also playing a part in film’s fade to black.

According to Los Angeles-based technology consultants MKPE, cinemas around the world are now approximately 70 percent digital. So there is less demand for film prints. Fuji has discontinued manufacture of film stock and the future of major film stock producer Eastman Kodak, which declared bankruptcy in 2012, is uncertain.

“I know Fox and Paramount have committed to a minimum of two more years of having film available,” Pregent said. “They’re all waiting to see which one is going to be the first one to blink. Is it ‘Iron Man?’ Well, that’s going to be big, they’re going to make money on that so, no — they’re going to make sure everyone can show that.”

Pregent said studio bosses might consider distributing other films in digital-only formats, but expects they remain convinced big money movies must be available in both formats, at least for now. “The transition is going to be some dog, some piece-of-crap horror movie that nobody’s going to see,” Pregent said. “They’re just going to put that out digitally.”

Pregent added that he works as a projectionist at Colorado’s annual late-summer Telluride Film Festival and said studios are still shipping digital and film products. “They want to show everything on digital, but in case it screws up, they give us film — they still go through the expense of printing the film.”

Some theater owners are keeping their film projectors even as they go digital.

“I’ve got an install starting in Maine. I’ve got three screens,” Pregent said. “They’re putting in digital, but they want me to take the three projectors and combine [the parts] into two so they can do changeovers and do archive prints.”

Caro said the new equipment means extra expenses. His projection booth must be insulated for weather considerations. “Computers don’t like extremes,” he said. “Basically, the booth has to be air-conditioned in the summer months and heated in the winter. That’s something we’ve never had to deal with.”

Customers will see that extra expense: Caro said tickets at Malta will rise $1 for both adults and children, to $9 and $4, respectively. The extra money will buy a better picture — movie heroes like Superman, Star Trek’s James T. Kirk and the Lone Ranger, all expected during the next three months — will look brighter.

“The light should be more even, brighter in the center and no more dark corners,” Caro said.

Pregent said has heard raves from some theater owners who say their pictures are much sharper with digital images. But he said these people had been using film projectors and lenses from the 1950s that had seen better days. “Of course you’ll get a sharper picture out of this.”

Theater owners can get a little help paying for the new equipment through virtual print fees, which MKPE says is a method for redistributing savings realized by studios when distributing digital prints in place of film prints. The virtual print fee system means the movie distributor — saving money normally spent in the production and transportation of film reels to a theater — pays the theater a fee for each movie it books. The funds help finance the theater’s digital system.

Pregent likes film, but still has converted four of the Madison’s seven screens to digital systems. “My staff that handles the work, they don’t want to see the other three go; they like film,” he said. “We’re just waiting for my financial backer to decide what he’s going to do.”

Theater owners in the Adirondacks are also waiting for financial support. Helping small-town theaters with the conversion has become a regional priority for the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, which solicits state grants for northern New York. Raising money for conversions has also become a project for the Adirondack North Country Association, a nonprofit rural development organization in northern New York.

Last week, ANCA launched a fundraising effort that includes movie trailers in theaters. The short films explain digital conversion and ask support as the movie houses try to stay in business.

Among the 10 theaters on the ANCA list are the Glen Drive-In in Queensbury, the Hollywood Theatre in Ausable Forks and the Palace Theatre in Lake Placid.

“It’s critical for the viability of our small towns,” said Kate Fish, ANCA’s executive director, of the changes to digital projection.

A $75,000 digital installation, Fish said, is just beyond the reach of smaller theaters. Some, like the Strand Theater in Schroon Lake and the State Theater in Tupper Lake, are only open a few months of the year. But Fish said theaters remain important parts of Adirondack communities.

“They’re such a vital part of a vibrant downtown, and when you see some of the older theaters that have gone out of business and then been revived by a family — most of them are family-owned and operated — it creates a more dynamic downtown experience,” Fish said. “All you have to do is picture walking into town or driving through a town and having the theater, the marquee saying ‘closed.’ It gives you the sense, ‘OK, this town is dying, this town is on the way out,’ versus one that is still up and running. It’s a poor signal for anybody who wants to open a business.”

Fish also believes there should be places where people can watch movies with others, even today when home television screens are available in ever-larger sizes. “There’s kind of a community sharing aspect of going to the movies,” she said. “People have a lot of emotional attachment, even little kids, of going to the movies rather than turning on your TV or streaming a movie on your huge home set.”

Fish added that Adirondack theaters are used for other things besides films. Many open for community events and meetings. She also said that while digital equipment will ensure theaters will maintain business operations, the conversions will also guarantee the old, landmark buildings will remain in use.

“When people from out of the area walk into the Palace in Lake Placid, they say ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know movie theaters like this existed anymore,’” said Fish, who lives in Lake Placid. “They even have an old-fashioned organ. The theater has been around since the silent film era.”

Indian Lake’s Lake Theater is among the movie houses on the ANCA support list. The 240-seat theater opened in 1938 and closed in 2004. In 2008, a community group purchased the theater and reopened the doors. The Lake is now open all year as an option for seasonal visitors and Indian Lake’s 1,400 full-time residents.

Theater director Danielle Shaw knows conversion is inevitable. The Lake is still using film, but she knows digital will soon be her only option.

“We’ve already begun fundraising,” she said. “We really don’t have a choice. We’re resigned to the fact this is going to happen; we’re just trying to figure out how and when we’re going to make the leap.”

Shaw said she knows studio heads are interested in saving money, and without film, studios won’t need technicians to store and repair film and won’t have to pay freight costs to deliver prints — in several canisters — to theaters. “This is just a more effective business model for them,” Shaw said.

In a way, Shaw hates to see the progress. “I think we’ll be sad to see the old machine go,” she said. “It’s going to be a skill that’s going to be lost.”

Of the new projector, she said: “It’s a hard-drive system, all you have to do is push a button that says ‘play.’ ”

Darci and Bill Wemple have two sites to consider. They’re still running film at their El Rancho Drive-In in Palatine Bridge and the Ozoner 29 in Broadalbin. They’ve owned the 61-year-old El Rancho since 1996 and opened the Ozoner in 2003.

“We’re still counting on film to be here for the rest of the summer,” Darci said. “By next summer, film will be phased out. . . . We’ll be hard-pressed to get much product at all. We plan to stay. So it will be something we have to do.”

Without the cash that comes with a theater chain, the Wemples would consider bargains. Good deals could show up if owners of indoor theaters who purchased first-generation digital projection systems a couple of years ago decide they want the latest machinery. “If the price was good enough, we’d take a chance on the used units,” Wemple said.

Wemple doesn’t want to take a chance on losing customers. So whatever happens, she doesn’t want to raise ticket prices. “We live in the community. We know all the people,” Wemple said. “We don’t want to keep raising prices. We want them to feel comfortable, their place to come for a reasonable family night out. There’s not a lot a family can do that doesn’t cost a fortune anymore.”

Some theater owners have already made the digital switches. Averill Park’s Hollywood Drive-In completed the project last year. “The picture is quality is 100 percent better, the sound quality is 100 percent better,” said longtime owner Frank Fisher.

The 326-seat Scotia Cinema has been using digital projection techniques since December 2011. Richard Adams, who has owned and operated the theater for the past 31 years, said the conversion and other modifications cost about $100,000.

“There are good things about it and there are bad things about it,” said Adams, during an Easter break weeknight showing of “Jack the Giant Slayer.”

“The good things are you always get a pristine print on the screen, there’s never any wear and tear on it,” Adams added. “We’re a second run theater, so we had a lot of prints we had to return and get better ones.”

On the downside, Adams said, the system needs constant upgrades. And he’ll be paying it off for 10 years.

Darci Wemple expects she’ll be paying too, sooner or later.

“We are not just investing in our personal business with this digital conversion,” she said, “but in the future of our slice of the movie industry as a whole. Drive-ins are as much a labor of love as a business. The last thing we want is for the drive-in to be referred to in the past tense. And we small theatres don’t necessarily have to have big donations to make this transition — though if someone was offering, it would not be turned down. What we really need is steady drive-in-goers who love what we love, and are willing to support their theater summer after summer.”

 
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