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Conversion to Digital Challenges Small Cinemas in Maine
08/30/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter
Saco Drive-in

Many movie theaters across the nation face an uncertain future as the film the industry converts to a new digital format. Within the next 6 months, 120 years of history will likely come to an end as reels of 35 millimeter celluloid are eclipsed by digital projection. For Maine's independent movie theaters, this digital revolution comes at a high cost: a cost which may prove too high for some.

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Barry Norman, Owner of Eveningstar Cinema and His Dog ScooterThe popcorn machine crackles to life at the Eveningstar Cinema in downtown Brunswick, as customers line up to buy tickets for the latest Woody Allen flick. The theater is half-full, which for an early weekday night, is busy, said owner Barry Norman.

"This movie has thank goodness been really really well, so for a Monday yay!" Norman said.

No amount of full-houses however can cover the cost of the Eveningstar's newest piece of equipment.

"I've already purchased the digital projector, that big black box right up there with the little green light," he said. "Now when I say purchased I mean financed because it's like buying the most expensive you could ever have. The total amount for that was $55,000, now that's just to stay in business. It doesn't offer one nickel of revenue."

So that's why Norman is pitching a crowd funding campaign to every customer who comes in.

"Did I give you one of these?" Norman asked one moviegoer. "We're doing a crowd-funding campaign."

About two weeks in, the campaign has raised nearly a third of the money needed. The way the campaign works, Norman has to raise 80% of the target amount, that's about $46,000, by early October, or all the donated money will be returned. It that happens, he admits, 2014 will be a real struggle. At the end of the day however, he accepts digital is the way forward: the images don't scratch or fade, and the new projectors definitely make life easier.

"This is all completely automated, so once you get the film in, you completely program it so these are the showtimes, and, knock-on-wood, when it does what it's supposed to do, it does everything automatically, so it frees up manpower that you don't have to strike the projector, you have to change reels, rewind reels and do things like that," he said. "So it does make life a little bit easier except for the humongous amount of money it costs to put them in."

Michael Hurley is a member of the National Association of Theatre Owners. He also owns two Maine movie theaters, the Colonial in Belfast, and the Temple Theater in Houlton. The Colonial has already gone digital, said Hurley, while the Temple has yet to make the change. Some of the higher-grossing venues, he explained, have received financial help from the industry in their switch to digital. The smaller, independent theaters meanwhile are left on their own.

"Often all these smaller theaters are very important to the towns they're in, but they're not very important to the major film companies," Hurley said.

They don't get a lot of their income, he said, from theaters like the Temple in Houlton or the Eveningstar in Brunswick.

And It's not just Maine's small arthouse cinemas that are grappling with the switch to digital. Ry Russell runs the Saco Drive-in theater on Route One, one of just five drive-ins left in Maine.

Ry Russell of the Saco Drive-in"The Saco Drive-In is the oldest drive-in in New England and the 2nd oldest in the country," said Russell.

With limited seasonal opening hours, Russell said breaking even was a tough enough challenge in the pre-digital age: an era which is now coming to an end.

Ry Russell: "We're already having a difficulty receiving copies of 35 millimeter print, it's already been a challenge for this year, and there won't any prints in 2014, so the end of this year will be it. You go digital or you close."
Tom Porter: "What's going to be the cost of going digital?"
RR: "The cost is going to be around $85,000. About 75 for the projector and about $10,000 to convert the projection room to climate control."

That target is unreachable through fund-raising, said Russell. The Saco theater's last hope may be the Honda motor company. The Japanese auto-giant is sponsoring 'Project Drive-in', an online voting campaign to save some of the country's endangered drive-in cinemas. Voting ends on September 9th, and the top five theaters will receive a free digital projector, courtesy of Honda.

"That's kind of our last hope," said Russell. "That's do-or-die. If we lose that competition unfortunately the doors will be locked for ever."

Russell predicts that less than half of America's 300 drive-ins will survive the switch to digital, and most of those, he expects to be in the warmer southern states, where movies can be shown year round.

Photos by Tom Porter.


Saco Drive-in Project

Eveningstar Cinema Project



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