Hollywood Theater's new chief is planning to bring Dormont cinema into digital age

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Sometime this year or next, major movie studios are expected to discontinue 35mm film for cheaper, less cumbersome and sleeker-looking digital projection.

It's a change that for historic movie houses, like Dormont's Hollywood Theater, whose hallmark offerings include many classics on film reel, could portend the end of an era.

The transition from film to digital also will be expensive. But a new leader at the Hollywood said he's poised to help make it easier by asking for the community's help and giving them good reasons to keep coming back.

Chad Hunter, 42, has been named the Hollywood's new managing director, a part-time position that will bring the Point Breeze resident to Dormont 30 hours a week.

He's responsible for fundraising and grant writing, and his vision is to offer titles on the new format while continuing to show classics on the medium that a small but loyal audience prefers.

"It's tragic," he said of the switch. "I mean, [old theaters] are so steeped in community history; they're the foundation."

Fortunately, he added, "the Hollywood is hitting the ground running" with its restored interior and more than 4,000 "likes" on Facebook.

But Mr. Hunter's appointment means another big switch: The former executive director of the Friends of the Hollywood Theater, instrumental in reopening the space in 2011, is out of a job.

John Maggio, a mortgage consultant and Dormont council member, said he applied and interviewed for the new managing director position, but was not moved to the second round. He did not apply to be manager of theater operations, another new position for which the board is still interviewing.

During his tenure, Mr. Maggio worked with local university students to draft a 501(c)3 application for nonprofit, tax-exempt status and to compile marketing and strategic data for the theater, which the Friends group planned to purchase from Hollywood Partners LLC over four years.

Mr. Maggio said he was called Aug. 13 and told it was his last day.

"I was never written up, I was never reprimanded. When the theater was in danger of closing in January of this year I brought in thousands," he said. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do at this point."

With changes advancing in the film industry, Scott Jackson of the Friends of the Hollywood Theater said consultants earlier this year suggested the 11-member board and 22-member advisory board identify a leader who was familiar with grant writing and fundraising.

For a while, Mr. Jackson said, the goal was to keep the theater open, "keeping it going from day to day." Instead, the theater wanted to position itself as a viable enterprise.

"We need to upgrade our equipment. We've known about [the switch to digital] for a year or more and we really needed to find someone who was going to direct that capital project," he said.

The board interviewed roughly 20 local candidates, taking Mr. Maggio's passion and hard work into account, Mr. Jackson said. But he was not among the handful selected for the second round.

"Obviously John was a big factor in getting the Hollywood reopened. He worked tirelessly and passionately [for] the theater," he said.

Ultimately, the board chose Mr. Hunter, who moved to Pittsburgh with his wife in 2009 to study arts management at Carnegie Mellon University. A film preservationist by trade, he also has worked as a media archivist and led various fundraising projects.

From 1999 to 2004, Mr. Hunter was the manager of the Little Theater, a 1929 art deco-style cinema in Rochester, N.Y. The self-described cinephile also worked as a preservation officer at the George Eastman House film archives at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester, where he maintained the home video collections for Martin Scorsese and Joan Crawford.

Mr. Hunter said he envisions the theater as a community space and not only a movie house -- an idea the Friends championed when the theater reopened in April 2011.

Future screenings might incorporate live music, such as local musicians playing scores for silent films.

"I think that could be a great way to engage the music community in Pittsburgh," he said.

The single-screen Hollywood Theater has a balcony, a concession area and a lobby and has both 35mm and Dolby digital capabilities.

The building was transformed into a movie theater in 1931 and enjoyed several successful decades before it was shuttered in 1998.

In 2006, the Bradley Center, an agency that serves children with mental, emotional and developmental disabilities, signed a lease with Hollywood Partners, a group of local businessmen, and renovated the theater. It reopened in 2007, but closed a year later. Motion Picture Heritage, a group from Franklin, Ind., opened the theater in August 2009 but it went dark after less than a year. The theater opened again in 2011.

Mr. Hunter plans to start a fundraising campaign that, combined with grants and foundation support, will help the Hollywood successfully make the switch to digital.

"I would love to see full digital projection by the end of the year," he said.

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Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.


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