ELIZABETHTOWN — Independent movie theaters in the North Country may be closed and dark if someone doesn’t help them buy digital projectors.
The tiny profit margins on which the theaters operate won’t allow them to buy equipment that costs about $100,000 per screen, but Hollywood movie studios say that by fall 2013 they will no longer provide new releases on reels of film.
That means that instead of cases of 35mm movie film delivered to theaters, they will get a small hard drive for each movie they show.
The 3.5-inch-wide hard drive will contain a copy-protected digital print of the picture. Instead of threading film into a projector, theater operators will slide the hard drive into a slot on a digital apparatus.
Most multiplex chain theaters already get their films that way, and now the system is being forced on mom-and-pop cinemas.
‘SWITCH OR DIE’
Twelve of those independent theaters have formed the North Country Theater Alliance, and with help from Lake Placid Film Forum coordinator Naj Wikoff, they are applying to Empire State Development Corp. for a $3.1 million grant to purchase digital projection equipment.
“It’s either switch to digital or die,” Wikoff said. “The studios, Sony, Disney, MGM, got together and agreed 100 percent they would no longer ship film; they’d send them out on digital.
“But the average cost of switching to digital is about $100,000 per screen. You have to upgrade your sound system; you have to upgrade your screens for 3-D.”
The cost per screen is also a problem, because the Palace in Lake Placid has four screens, and the Hollywood in AuSable Forks has two.
MAIN STREET ISSUE
The effort has the backing of the Essex County Board of Supervisors and the Adirondack Film Society.
“The Film Society agreed to put together an application for 47 screens in 12 theaters,” Wikoff said. “These theaters improve the local economy. It’s affordable family fare; for $6 or $7 you can go to the movies. “
Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas (D-Jay) said his local theater in AuSable Forks would be one of those hurt by the digital conversion.
“It affects all the small movie theaters in all our small towns. There will be no first-run movies anymore without the conversion.”
The theaters are at Schroon Lake, AuSable Forks, Lake Placid, Tupper Lake, Indian Lake and other places, Douglas said.
“It has a huge effect on Main Street America, as we try to do things to improve our local downtowns. These are hubs in our communities throughout the North Country.”
Sally Strasser, who operates the State Theater in Tupper Lake, said it’s a huge and expensive shift in technology.
“Already, the small-town theaters have trouble securing 35mm prints to run films like they normally have. I do my own film booking, and I know first-hand how hard it is to get film nowadays.”
She said the National Alliance of Theater Owners has estimated 20 percent of theaters will close because of the digital gap.
“Most of the theaters that close will be small-town theaters — the ones that make a big difference in their communities. This is an economic-development issue, as well, because theaters attract people to downtowns. Their patrons also spend money at the nearby shops and restaurants.”
She said they’re being forced to upgrade for no reason other than to stay in business.
“This upgrade will not improve attendance. We are a small, family-run theater that makes no profit.”
The studios are offering to help them buy the digital projectors, but only if they then have a say in the theater’s operation, Strasser said.
“Those programs are tailored for the multiplex theaters in larger markets. Restrictions are put in place, so we would have a harder time offering community events at our local theaters if we enter these programs.
“So we are in a quandary: convert or die. It’s a huge thing for us. We could never afford that equipment on our own.”
Wikoff said that by banding together, the 12 theaters can get the digital equipment for less —about $86,000 a screen instead of full price.
He said a 2005 arts and prosperity study done for Americans for the Arts showed that 68 percent of the crowd at a local theater is from the community, and they spend about $10 a person above the ticket price.
Visitors to the community spend more, he said, on average $39 above the cost of a ticket, because they often have dinner nearby when they come to see a film.
“That’s a huge economic impact. One-half million people go to movies each year in the Adirondacks. That’s what we stand to lose.”
He said the economic value to local communities is $8.4 million above ticket price for those 12 theaters, which also provide a combined 100 jobs, mostly part-time summer positions.
Wikoff said Empire State Development has reviewed the draft application, any suggestions they had have been incorporated, and he’ll submit the official application within a week.
“I really hope the state is willing to step up. We want to give those theaters a new lease on life. They might actually make a bit of money. Then they can afford to hire more employees.”
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North Country Theater Alliance
1. The Strand, Plattsburgh
2. The Hollywood Theatre, AuSable Forks
3. The Strand, Schroon Lake
4. The Palace Theatre, Lake Placid
5. The State Theater, Tupper Lake
6. Indian Lake Theatre, Indian Lake
6. The Glen Drive-in, Queensbury
7. 56 Drive-in, Massena
8. Massena Multiplex, Massena
9. The Roxy, Potsdam
10. The American Theatre, Canton
11. The Strand, Old Forge
12. The Town Hall Theater, Lowville