Older movie houses have high-tech challenges

Matthew Santoni
| Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, 12:11 a.m.

If Hollywood Theater Managing Director Chad Hunter wants to see his little movie house on the big screen, he'll have to buy a ticket to a multiplex.

Despite featuring prominently in the film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the single-screen theater on Potomac Avenue in Dormont can't show the movie because it lacks the latest digital projection equipment.

Upper St. Clair native Stephen Chbosky wrote scenes into “Perks” that are drawn from his visits as a teen to sing-along showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the Hollywood. Chbosky authored the book on which the movie is based.

He tried to help the Hollywood show the movie, released this fall, “and for a while it looked promising. But when the film opened we were told it would be some time before it was available to us, and even then we couldn't play it because we couldn't show it on DVD or Blu-ray,” Hunter said.

Like many movie distributors, the company distributing “Perks” is phasing out 35 mm film and Blu-ray discs in favor of Digital Cinema Packages — portable hard drives, known as DCPs, which download movies onto computers at the theater and link them to a projector.

The process is less expensive than shipping cans of film, said Gary Kaboly, director of exhibitions for Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which the switch also affects.

It is leaving smaller, older theaters such as the Hollywood, the Harris Theater, Downtown, The Oaks Theater in Oakmont and the Penn Hills Cinemas to raise tens of thousands of dollars for projectors and computers if they want to show new movies or new copies of old films.

Without a $75,000 upgrade to its projection system, the Hollywood could find itself with fewer movies to show, which could end the venue's latest incarnation as a nonprofit, Hunter said.

Hunter, who became managing director this fall, is hoping to raise money for a projection system through a fundraiser, “Go Digital or Go Dark.”

At The Oaks, owners installed a digital projection system several years ago that's not DCP-compliant. General Manager Adam Morgan said the theater raises money for upgrades through special events and pre-show advertising but the industry's transition to DCP came faster than he anticipated.

“Just in the past six months, it seems like everything just sped up to make film even harder to find,” Morgan said. “Because we get most of our main features on 35 mm, it's pushing us toward becoming a second-run theater.”

Of Oakland-based Pittsburgh Filmmakers' three theaters, only Regent Square Theater on Braddock Avenue has DCP. Filmmakers' fundraising arm is working to convert the Harris Theater on Liberty Avenue and Melwood Screening Room in Oakland, Kaboly said.

Not all independent films are on DCP.

“We just came out of the Three Rivers Film Festival, where we had maybe 57 different films. There were five or six on 35 mm, maybe 15 were DCP, and the rest were Blu-rays and digital files on computers,” Kaboly said.

Since he bought the four-screen, 400-seat Penn Hills Cinema a year ago and started fixing it up, Paul Looker has cut costs to save for digital conversion. With cheaper projectors that would suit his theaters, Looker said he could convert for $35,000 to $50,000 per screen.

“I've got to do it by myself as much as possible, and it involves a lot of 90-hour work weeks and a lot of driving around town to find the lowest prices on popcorn,” said Looker, the cinema's former manager.

At Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill, going digital spurred a $600,000 renovation of the seating and lobby areas this spring, said co-owner Rick Stern.

“That was the catalyst that got the renovation started,” he said. “Unless you make the switch and upgrade the technology, it's going to be difficult to stay in business.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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