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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 12:48pm

The End Of Film Projection? Shift To Digital Puts A Squeeze On Arthouse Theaters

Updated: 4 months ago.
Theater Manager Alicia Bowers tends to a film projector at the Parkway Discount Cinema in Warner Robins, GA. Photo by Grant Blankenship

It’s show time in the projection booth of the Parkway Discount Theater in Warner Robins.

Second run blockbusters, sometimes only weeks past their top grossing prime, snake around the room on 35 mm film. Superheroes and giant robots flicker and bounce on the screens below.

Alicia Bowers manages this theater. With 10 years in the business, she’s worked with both digital and film.

"When we first got rid of film it was kind of nostalgic to come back to it, but now it’s like ‘This is a lot of work’," Bowers said.

A lot of work--as in splicing a film together from multiple reels and moving platter sized spools so wide they take two people to lift into place. A digital blockbuster is delivered in a one pound hard drive you can hold in your hand.

But Bowers’ second run with film projection is coming to an end. The Parkway Discount Cinema is closing rather than convert to digital projection.

Bill Stembler is the CEO of the Georgia Theater Company, which owns the Parkway. When he was a kid, the family business was in perhaps the most storied theatre in Georgia.

"I Had my first date with my wife at the Fox Theater. And remember going to see Creature from the Black Lagoon with my Father on my tenth birthday. I’m now 67. It was a big treat," Stembler said.

Stembler loves movies and embraces the shift to digital. But it’s expensive.

"It’s questionable whether you could recover your investment. It’s something like $50-$70 thousand a screen to convert to digital," he said.

Do the math for a 16 screen multiplex and you get the picture.

The big movie studios have a solution. Virtual Print Fees are a subsidy the studios pay to theaters to help them pay for their digital gear. Every time your multiplex plays a movie studio approved film at a movie studio defined full ticket price, the studio pays down a piece of the movie theater’s debt.

But the return on a discount theatre ticket just isn’t enough for the movie studios. So no Virtual Print Fee for Second Runs like the Parkway.

Sara Beresford is a board member at Cine’, a two screen arthouse cinema in Athens. They charge more, so they could have collected enough fees to pay for their digital upgrade.

"But I think for a lot of the arthouse cinema operators there were too many strings attached to that agreement," Beresford said.

Remember, Virtual Print Fees come with studio directives about which movies will be shown. For a lot of arthouse operators that’s a non-starter.

Instead, Cine’ went digital by raising 140-thousand dollars in Athens, a huge college town. Could a theater off the beaten path do the same? Beresford isn’t sure.

"There’s these tiny sort of older theaters out in rural towns in GA that..I’m not even sure they still exist," Beresford said.

Back at the Parkway Discount Cinema, the projector is reset and Captain America will fight again, at 24 frames a second.

But film lovers only have a little time left to see him this way.

The Parkway is closing this summer and one studio, Paramount, already no longer produces film prints at all.

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