Switch to digital film poses hardship for independent theaters

| Sunday, March 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Technology's relentless advance is poised to steamroll the Alle-Kiski Valley's last drive-in theater into memory.

The Riverside Drive-In Theater along River Road in Parks could be entering its last season this year because of a change throughout the industry in how movies are shown.

Projectors that run the 35mm film, the movie industry's staple for decades, are about to become extinct. The movie studios are replacing 35mm with digital video recorded on hard drives, according to Todd Ament, 41, of Vandergrift, who has leased and operated the Riverside since 2005.

“It's mostly the studios that want to do away with 35mm film because it costs them about $1,500 per print to put it on 35 mm versus $100 to put it on a hard drive,” said Ament, who has been a theater projectionist for years.

The new technology requires new equipment such as a digital projector, a server and an audio processor. Ament said that equipment costs about $70,000, which is $70,000 he doesn't have. Because of that, the Riverside may shut down for good when the drive-in movie season ends in October.

Fading film

“This year has kind of been a bonus,” Ament said. “They said they were going to do away with it (35mm) this year.”

He said while studios may make a few 35mm prints beyond 2013, they will be difficult to get.

“It (35mm) won't be as plentiful because 80 percent of the industry has converted over,” Ament said.

He said he likely would have to wait weeks for the few 35mm prints of feature films that will be made and sent to theaters that draw bigger crowds.

Ament said he tried to get a loan to finance the digital equipment purchase, but couldn't secure one because he leases, not owns the drive-in.

So Ament hopes he has a high-tech solution — the power of the Internet — to raise at least some of the money via an online campaign known as “crowdfunding.”

A burning question

Why should people donate to a private, for-profit enterprise?

Ament said it is not just to maintain his and six other employees' jobs, but to preserve a vanishing piece of American culture, the drive-in. A school bus driver during the drive-in off season, he said he simply can't save Riverside on his own.

“I understand those who would have that concern,” Ament said. “But what everyone has to remember is that 60 percent of what we collect at the box office, which is $8 for adults and $3 for children, goes right back to the studio. So the drive-in survives on 40 percent, plus what the concession stand brings in.”

He hopes the crowdfunding effort gets him at least halfway — $35,000. Then, he said, he can go back to the banks and see if they are more accommodating.

“If we fail, then we are out of business and that is going to be really hard for me just to walk away from it after eight years of putting everything into it, night after night, season after season,” Ament said.

A major jump

Most of the big movie theater chains like CineMark and Carmike, which operate complexes with about 10 to 20 screens, started the digital conversion in 2010.

Given the cost, conversion can be difficult for independent theater owners with one or two screens like The Oaks in Oakmont.

“There hasn't been this much of a leap since we went from silent features to the talkies,” said Adam Morgan, The Oaks manager. “It's going to affect the Oaks the way it will affect most of the independent theaters: in order to survive you're going to have to adapt.”

“Even in the past year it has taken a major jump forward,” he said. “I think it has taken some people off-guard.”

Puzzling effect

Morgan said The Oaks has been half film and half digital after purchasing a digital projector, allowing it to show films downloaded directly from studio servers or on Blu-Ray disk. He said the projector, however, is not compliant with the standards set forth by the Digital Cinema Initiative, an organization of major studios that pushed for the digital conversion.

He said that means the owners of The Oaks must invest in the new equipment as well. Morgan said he has not discussed with them about what their plans.

Morgan said he has heard about the plight of Ament and the Riverside Drive-In.

“That's the real shame of it,” Morgan said. “As much as it is impacting the small theaters, it is really going to hurt the drive-ins mainly because of the fact that the drive-ins are seasonal.

“You're probably going to see more of them go by the wayside,” he said.

That puzzles Morgan.

“To me, you would want as many theaters out there as you can so more people can see your films,” he said.

The Motion Picture Association of America declined to comment on the conversion issue. Calls seeking comment from the National Association of Theater Owners and Digital Cinema Initiatives were not returned. The members of Digital Cinema Initiatives are the same six major studios that make up the Motion Picture Association of America:

‘Better than film'

Nick Mulone, an independent who owns the 10-screen South Pike Cinema in Buffalo, thinks digital is a change for the better.

He said his theaters are on track for the conversion.

“It's in the process of getting done right now,” Mulone said. “The equipment is ordered, we are just waiting for them to install it. We'll have two 3-D systems after the digital conversion.”

Mulone said he tested the system for two years and said, “It is really a good system, it's a lot better than film. Its better for the managers, they don't have to worry once the movie starts, about the film becoming unthreaded.”

He said the hard drives are shipped via UPS and plugged in just like a computer hard drive.

“I was at Deluxe Studios in Hollywood. ... They can make 1,500 hard drives in a day,” he said. “It was pretty interesting.”

Digital film is cheaper for the studios and the distributors, Mulone conceded, but said it is also better for the theater owners and movie fans.

Aside from the threading issue, Mulone said 35mm becomes easily scratched

”It picks up a lot of static electricity which picks up dust and the dust causes scratches,” Mulone said.

The hard drives eliminate that problem, he said.

As for movie goers, Mulone said, “The advantage for them is that the movie is sharper, more crisp, there is no fuzzy line around the perimeter like it is with film and the sound is better.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or tyerace@tribweb.com.

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