Small theaters reel as movies go digital


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Anyone who suspected movie theaters or drive-ins were crying wolf over the need to raise $65,000 or $75,000 for a digital projector need only look to "The Wolf of Wall Street."

Paramount Pictures has become the first big studio to stop releasing its major movies, including the Oscar-nominated saga about a stockbroker wallowing in excess, on film in the United States, the Los Angeles Times recently reported.

"Wolf" is being distributed entirely in the digital format, and some theaters such as the Hollywood in Dormont and the Oaks in Oakmont don't have the equipment to play it.

Imagine that someone handed you a movie on DVD but all you had at home was a VCR; you would be out of luck unless you upgraded.

The Guthrie Theatre in Grove City could handle "Wolf" although it's showing the (far) family-friendlier "Frozen" and "Saving Mr. Banks" with its new Sony 4K digital projector.

That is thanks to "Seat Backs for Greenbacks" offering personalized vinyl seat decals, an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, T-shirt sale and pledge of $30,000 over two years from Grove City College in exchange for access to the theater.

Wendell August also designed and produced a Christmas ornament depicting the Guthrie and generously gave the theater 50 percent of the proceeds.

In a story that seems straight out of "It's a Wonderful Life," one patron bought a seat for her 95-year-old mother, who had gone on her first date with her boyfriend -- and later, husband -- at the theater in 1935, eight years after it opened.

The art-deco venue, operating every day except Christmas Eve and any Super Bowl with the Steelers, accepted delivery of its Sony projector Nov. 19 and christened it with "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

"People have noticed a big difference," says owner Eric Thomas, who runs the theater with his wife, Paula, and also works in television production. "The sound and picture are incredible," thanks to $65,000 spent on the projector and upgraded sound equipment.

"I certainly want to say thanks to all who donated," Mr. Thomas said, and he is especially grateful to fellow popcorn lover and Grove City College president Richard G. Jewell, who suggested investing in the landmark a few blocks from campus.

Not all moviehouses are so lucky, and the Times story hit just as Art House Convergence, an annual conference of independent arthouse operators near Park City, Utah, was ending.

"Everyone started emailing it to one another as we were all leaving," said Gary Kaboly, director of exhibition at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. It operates the Regent Square and Harris theaters along with the Melwood Screening Room.

"But everyone knew that it was coming," and 2014 was the targeted year for major distributors to quit shipping film prints and rely on computer technology to project images on screen.

"A lot of arthouses around the country have been prepping for this for the past year," Mr. Kaboly said. In early 2013, only 24 percent of the art theaters (commercial and nonprofit) had converted to digital, compared with 73 percent today.

But when you look at just the single-screen theaters, only 44 percent have switched over.

"A multiple-screen theater probably has more earned income than a single screen mom-and-pop somewhere outside of the major markets, and those are the theaters that are struggling to raise, at minimum, $75,000 to convert each screen," Mr. Kaboly said.

The Regent Square was upgraded two years ago, and Filmmakers hopes to complete the updating of the other two screens before the end of the year if the funding is secured.

Projection is an alphabet soup these days -- DCP (Digital Cinema Package), DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives), KDM (Key Delivery Message) -- that means a hard drive about the size of an iPad mini arrives at a theater instead of a 35mm print. Files are ingested into a server and require a special studio-sanctioned key code to unlock and play in a designated theater.

During the 2013 Three Rivers Film Festival, the code for "Papusza" expired an hour before its second showing.

"Some guy in Warsaw in his pajamas ran down to the lab at 2 o'clock in the morning to generate a key code to send to Chicago to send to us so we could play that film that Friday night," Mr. Kaboly recalled.

Although 95 percent of moviegoers might not notice the difference between 35mm and digital, the latter means no scratches, green streaks, dirt or blotches. "What really has increased is the cleanliness of the soundtrack; everything is crisp and clean," Mr. Kaboly said.

Like many theaters with roomy projection booths, the operators of the single-screen Hollywood plan to retain their 35mm equipment and supplement it with new digital technology. The Dormont mainstay has raised about $35,000 through Indiegogo, special events, a grant from the Remmel Foundation through PNC Charitable Trusts and other donations.

Chad Hunter, executive director of the Hollywood, said the initial fundraising goal was $75,000, which included electrical improvements and a maintenance contract, but prices have dropped a bit. "Realistically, it might be more in the 60 [thousand dollar] range."

He is applying for grants through the state's Department of Community & Economic Development and a local company. "I'm hoping that's going to take us all the way there.

"I think we're in a little bit of a different situation than some of the other theaters, especially first-run theaters. We're an arthouse theater, so we do a lot of repertory and first-run indie titles.

"Fortunately for us, all of the indie distributors that we've been dealing with have still been providing on DVD and Blu-ray. As far as the larger studios and distributors go, we still have 35mm capability," which is how "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is exhibited and "The Straight Story" must be shown during a David Lynch series.

"We have a little bit of time, not a lot, but we have a little bit of time to finish this out," Mr. Hunter said. "We're working on it."

The Oaks, which opened in Oakmont on Nov. 18, 1938, is "sort of riding a middle ground," manager Adam Morgan says. It's in better shape than some, but not where it needs to be to ensure survival.

"We have one foot in the past and one foot in the future. Right now, we're still running 35mm film, but we do some of our shows digitally."

The Oaks has a digital projector and shows opera and ballet performances live in HD, but the theater is not DCI or Digital Cinema Initiatives compliant.

"That means that we will have to buy a new projector to be compliant with the standards that they've set for us to be able to do new content. All the big Hollywood features, we're not equipped to do that right now."

That includes Martin Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street."

"Probably three, four years ago, when we got the digital projector we have now, the thinking was that we would use it to do independent films, foreign films and, basically, smaller released films," he said. The digital changeover did not seem imminent, but it sped up.

Film prints are tougher to come by and they go to larger theaters. The manager is thankful for patrons who wait until a feature arrives at the Oaks.

"If we were to convert our single-screen theater, it would probably be in the ballpark of $50,000 to $60,000. That would include new projector, new server and some sound upgrades."

Unable to make the details public just yet, Mr. Morgan said, "We're working on plans right now to ensure the theater will be here into the future. ... You have to convert, just to survive."

The 430-seat theater is no longer for sale and there is no buyer's remorse in the booth. "Looking back on it, the digital projector we bought then, it might have been better to hang on for a little bit longer and maybe convert fully but, at the same time, I think if we didn't get that projector a few years ago, we might not be here now."


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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