Small theaters adapt to changeover from celluloid
By Bob Kostanczuk Post-Tribune correspondent June 15, 2012 3:32PM
Mike Cotton takes a seat while watching over the projection equipment at the 49er Drive-In Theatre in Valparaiso, Ind. Cotton co-owns the theater with his brother Steve. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
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When will celluloid prints of major-release films fade into existence??
Updated: July 18, 2012 6:01AM
Technological progress marches on, and it’s pulling the Art Theatre with it.
The downtown Hobart venue is acknowledging a shake-up in the movie industry by making the transition from celluloid films to digital versions of motion pictures.
“You really don’t have any choice — it’s either go digital or go out of business,” said Scott Frey, who owns the Art Theatre, along with his brother, William Frey.
Celluloid prints from major film studios are no longer going to be available for smaller theaters, so in order for independent movie houses to keep on showing new motion pictures, an expensive switchover is necessary.
“It’s going to cost me money that I really didn’t need to spend,” Frey said. “My projectors work fine. I have no problems with them. They work great. They’re easy to work on. Now, I’m going to something totally new that I’ve got to learn.”
It had been a 35mm world for small, first-run theater owners like Frey, who said the new reality is movies “run by computer.”
John Katris is bidding adieu to showing films in the old format as he makes the transition to digital at considerable expense for the venerable Hoosier Theatre, a classic movie palace in Whiting that once hosted vaudeville acts.
His plans to present major first-run movies via hard drive at his one-screen theater is going to cost him “around $50,000, on the low end.”
That, he said, is above and beyond normal operating costs because “it’s an extra $50,000 that’s not going to benefit anybody because it’s not going to bring more bodies into the theater. It’s not going to do anything different than what the film projector does.”
Katris said he’s “got till the end of the summer” to implement his new plan that loads a hard drive into a server.
“It’s very costly for the studios to make film product,” Katris, a Munster resident, said.
The clock is ticking for him to go digital, as 2013 is scheduled to see celluloid prints of major releases fade into extinction.
“If you don’t turn to digital, you’re going to be out of business,” Katris said.
According to film historian David Bordwell, two of three movie screens in the United States were already digital presenters by the end of 2011.
A staple of warm weather, the 49er Drive-In Theatre recalls nostalgic days of the 1950s, but it is also making moves to eventually show first-run movies that are not celluloid prints.
“I think it’s going to cost me about $75,000 that I’m not tickled to death about,” said Steve Cotton, who runs the Valparaiso-area drive-in with his brother, Mike Cotton.
The cinematic business is quickly closing the window on the old projection system.
“They’re still going to make film, but by next year it’s going to start getting tough to have any film, and they just are going to quit making it,” said Cotton, the proprietor of the Liberty Township drive-in that represents a rare form of entertainment in the 21st century.
The film industry is expected to save substantial money with the digital push because the cost of making prints and shipping the sizable reels will be negated.
Movies hitting theaters for the first time can also be delivered to them via satellite, further sounding the death knell of 35mm projection in a commercial cinema sense.
Katris — who shows first-run features such as “Men in Black 3” — is preparing for the new operating procedure of programming a digital projector.
“I do have the sound system, which I haven’t installed yet, for digital cinema,” the theater owner said in a May interview.
Frey, meanwhile, is looking
to convert the Art Theatre to digital projection by September,
at the latest.
As major-studio film prints become dinosaurs by the end of 2013, Frey is assessing the financial impact of showing future features in a different format than what was used to present “The Avengers.”
In regard to his expenses, the Hobart resident said: “It’s going to be anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000, from what I can see. I really haven’t nailed every little piece down yet.”
In Valparaiso, the Memorial Opera House does not need to go through any update in the way it presents films.
Late last year, the venue was already in step with high-tech presentations.
“We launched a new form of entertainment here with the showing of what we call limited-release independent foreign and documentary films,” said Brian Schafer, business director and executive producer for the venue. “The Opera House is a little bit maybe ahead of the curve. When we were planning this process to be showing the independent films, we had already planned for our media to be delivered digitally. So we are already set up, and the movies that we are showing are currently being done in a digital format from a hard drive off of a server that is running.”
But Cotton is still working on digitizing, even though it’s costly for his 49er drive-in, which still shows double features.
“We don’t plan on going anywhere,” he said. “The drive-in’s been here since 1956.”