The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 13, 2012

Benji Tunnell: Digital projectors could shut smaller theaters down

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — I am a movie lover. I’ve grown up with an appreciation of all types of films; I have schooled myself on directors, actors and screenwriters.

More than that, I am a movie theater lover. That is natural, considering how many hours of my life have been whiled away in darkened auditoriums.

Whenever I visit a town, the first thing I look for is what movie theaters it has to offer. A multiplex is fine when it is the only option, and I’ve been to some great major chain theaters.

But the ones I look for are the smaller, independent one- or two-screen operations that focus on showmanship as much as on the show. There is no greater moviegoing experience than to visit a theater run by someone who truly has a passion for the business, rather than a constant eye on the bottom line.

I would much rather support the little guy in their struggle to establish their importance in today’s entertainment environment than to be hustled through a buffet style modern theater where the main goal isn’t presentation or picture, but to herd the customers in and out as efficiently as possible, all while prodding them toward an overpriced concession stand.

But, much like the big boxes have driven so many of the mom and pop stores out of business, so is Hollywood looking to shovel dirt on the graves of many of these small hometown movie houses.

And the driving force is something that we all should be enthusiastic about: digital cinema.

As a 35mm projectionist for more years than I’d care to count, I was apprehensive when this new digital wave began. Many lifelong projectionists became obsolete seemingly overnight, forced to adapt to different roles or move on.

But at the same time, digital offered so many benefits that it was hard to argue against. Gone are the days of prints scratched on opening weekend, ruined for the rest of the run. There are no opportunities for bad splices, and film breaks are a thing of the past. And, as much as I hate to admit it, picture quality can’t be touched.  

But in reading recently, I realized that this new technology comes at a hefty price. It is estimated that as many as a thousand theaters, representing about 10,000 screens, will be forced to close because they can’t afford to pay for the conversion to digital.

Michael Hurley, a movie theater owner in Maine, recently wrote about this issue for the Indiewire Web site and Screentrade magazine. Hurley, who also runs the independent theater owner Web site, highlighted the heart of the problem: Studios, looking for a way to save on print and shipping costs, have driven the digital revolution. They stand to save a fortune once theaters have converted, and thus have spearheaded the push to convert as quickly as possible.

However, these new projectors don’t come cheap.

This hasn’t been an issue for the major chains, who bring in revenue from multiple screens and also benefit from virtual print fees, or fees paid to the theater for films played that help offset the cost of converting. Soon to be left behind, though, are the small town theaters, perhaps the only hub of entertainment for their patrons without driving 30 minutes or more to larger population areas, as well as the independent theaters that are trying to compete with the AMCs and Regals of the world.

It is estimated that 35 mm film will be gone within the next three years (and this is a very generous estimate; many think that it will become nearly impossible to get a print by the end of 2012), and if these theaters can’t afford the $65,000 or more to purchase new digital projectors, a hefty investment for theaters that are sometimes just making enough to keep the doors open, many of these screens will be forced to go dark, shuttering up theaters that have been fixtures in their towns for generations.

It pains me to think of a world where my only moviegoing option is a bland, indifferent cookie cutter multiplex that lacks the personality or showmanship of the smaller, customer-focused houses. Much like going to a local diner gives a whole wealth of new flavors in comparison to the chain restaurants with identical menus, the independent theater harkens back to a time when it was the exhibition that mattered, where the show truly was the thing. Regardless of how bad the film might be, you could still count on a great experience.

These theaters are national as well as local treasures, snapshots of history contained within their structures. There are far too many classic movie houses that now stand empty, and that number looks to increase exponentially over the next few years.

There’s not much we as movie goers can do to change the system; the studios will continue to support those who contribute the most back to them. But we can do our part by supporting the theaters who have given so much to their communities.

The next time you go to the multiplex, ask yourself, after standing in the ticket line for five minutes, being gouged at the concession stand and having your eyes and ears assaulted by the gaudy decor and the seemingly endless advertisements, whether you feel like you’re being appreciated. Maybe next time, give your money to a theater that really values you.