Independent community theaters are no strangers to relying on support from their audiences, but a new expensive change in operation has all eyeing major capital campaigns in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Over the years, directors and movie studios have opted to go digital instead of keeping with 35 mm prints. By the end of 2013, all studios will have transitioned away from celluloid.
Which means if community theaters haven’t done the same, they can no longer show movies.
The problem area theaters face is the cost of that transition.
Many theaters are currently looking at capital campaigns in the $150,000 area and some more if they have more than one theater.
The Carlisle Theatre board aims for a $520,000 capital campaign to fund both the transition to digital and repairs to its building.
“We always knew there was a lot of repairs that needed to be done,” said Carlisle Theatre board President Sherrie Davis. “When the digital transition came up, it became a priority.”
Davis estimated that the cost of converting to digital and installing a new sound system will be about $148,000. The other chunk of the money will go to repairing the roof and interior walls, updating its intruder and fire alarm, repairing the facade and fixing its boiler, generator and air conditioning system. The facade repairs alone will cost about $68,000, and Davis said they are also looking at options to make the lobby a place where community members can sit and hang out.
The capital campaign board in Carlisle is still deciding if the theater will be granted approval to go ahead with the campaign in 2013.
Fred Bollen, owner of West Shore Theater in New Cumberland, said that he will start discussing what the theater can do to raise funds for its transition to digital. He and Vickie’s Angel Walk creator Mickey Minnich will work out a plan and later release information on how the community can help the West Shore Theater stay open.
“If I get new equipment, it will cost us $70,000 to $80,000,” Bollen explained. “If I get used
equipment, from what I’ve read, it’ll cost around $40,000 to $45,000. If we get enough money, I want to try to get the new equipment. I want to get the best available to help us stay in the game a little longer and also make it the best experience for everyone.”
Bollen added that the cost is not something he can afford on his own.
The theater has been a staple in New Cumberland for 72 consecutive years, and Bollen has been the owner of it for more than 25 years. The transition to digital, however, isn’t the only cost for the theater. Bollen added that he still has to pay for insurance, electricity, repairs and increasing costs for prints and concessions. Bollen said popcorn alone has increased 43 percent in price for the theater to pay the supplier.
Even with all of the increasing costs, Bollen said he doesn’t want to hoist those costs onto audiences.
“I don’t want to raise the prices any more than I have to,” he said. “My whole idea is to keep this as cheap as possible. I want to show movies who can’t afford to see it (at another theater).”
The West Shore Theater offers movies at $3.50 a night, with a special $2.50 night on Tuesday. At those prices, the money Bollen makes from tickets isn’t enough to pay for costs, much less a new projector.
“Ticket money doesn’t even cover the expenses,” he said. “I have to use some of the money in the concession stand to stay in business. I’m all for digital, but not the way they handled it. The whole ploy of going digital is just to eliminate the little guy. If you can’t buck up and pay for it, you’re going to be left behind and out of business.”
Carlisle Theatre and West Shore Theaters are some of the last in the region to put a capital campaign together to aid in the digital transition.
Both Midtown Cinema in Harrisburg and the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg started their capital campaigns in the summer. Both have also seen large support from its respective communities.
Midtown Cinema started with its “Summer of 10,000 Tickets” for proof to a loan program that it could do steady business over several months.
“It was a big success,” Manager Kevyn Knox said. “They came out in droves to support us. It’s really helped us get through this. Now we just have to get funding for the projectors. At this point, it doesn’t look like it will be a problem.”
Knox estimated that the overall cost to Midtown is between $250,000 and $300,000 since the business has to install digital projectors for all three of its screens and a new sound system.
The Majestic Theater looks at a much smaller price given that its cinema is only 8 years old and its sound system is in excellent condition. However, the cost is still more than initial estimates.
“Originally, we thought the cost would be $125,000 from our estimates, but the hard bids came in at $160,000,” said Jeffrey Gabel, executive director of the Majestic Theater. “It’s a buyer’s market and community cinemas are all converting to digital.”
However, like Midtown, Majestic has had large support from its community.
“The good news is that we’ve raised, in just over four months, $110,000,” he said. “We’re almost 78 percent of the way there. We have every confidence we’ll reach our goal.”
Gabel described it as a “boots on the ground campaign,” with committee members soliciting funds one-on-one.
“I expected that we would get a lot of support,” he said. “The cinema has been open for eight years, and we’ve built a very loyal audience for these independent films, foreign films and documentaries, just as I’m sure the Carlisle Theatre has. We’ve watched our movie audience grow over the years, and they really, really appreciate having these intelligent and thoughtful films as opposed to the more commercial films.”
Gabel suspects that the Carlisle Theatre will have as much success with its campaign as the Majestic.
“I’m sure Carlisle Theatre and the Carlisle community will be able to raise the dollars,” he said. “It’s such a beautiful 1930s deco theater. We’re a lot like Carlisle. (In Gettysburg) we’re the county seat with a college, which means we have a well-educated community with means, who tend to be big supporters of independent movies and theaters.”
Should all of the community theaters raise the funds necessary, there’s still some worry that technology will change again in only a few years.
“This technology doesn’t last,” Bollen said. “The first projectors they made are obsolete already. I’m still running our projector from the ‘50s. A mechanic can fix the project if you can get new parts. You can’t do that with this technology.”
Gabel said there may be some room for upgrades with some of the digital projectors, but he hopes it won’t be until years later that it comes to upgrades.
“I’m hoping to retire before then,” he joked. “We’re spending a little more to buy systems that can be upgraded – that’s what the installers tell me. Bulbs and lenses are unlikely to change, but the software will probably have to be upgraded and improved.”
Bollen said that from what he’s seen with IMAX testing Kodak laser technology, it may be sooner rather than later that new technology will arrive.
“It’s a new laser projection for all IMAX theaters,” he said. “It’s supposed to be cheaper than digital and a lot better quality. We probably won’t see it in regular theaters until 2016. But (the movie industry) isn’t going to let us wait till then (to change systems).”
Nancy Mellerski, chair of the Hollywood on High Committee at the Carlisle Theatre, said there is a risk with getting the new technology, but it’s not something they can fight now.
“That’s obviously a risk,” she said. “There’s been changes already, but there’s no other solution (right now). We either do it or we don’t show movies.”