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Ligonier Theatre looking to upgrade to digital equipment

| Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, 12:10 a.m.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
The Ligonier Theatre, owned by the nonprofit group Valley Players of Ligonier, is trying to raise money to convert to digital equipment. The theater, which has been screening movies since the 1940s, has gone dark the past two weekends because the group is struggling to find movies available on 35 millimeter film reels, Executive Director Eric Harris said.
Bill Pribisco | for the Ligonier Echo
Eric Harris is executive director of the Ligonier Theatre, home of the Valley Players.
Bill Pribisco | Trib Total Media
Ligonier Theatre Executive Director Eric Harris loads a 35 mm film reel into the theatre's projector. The reels cost about $1,500 to produce and weigh about 100 pounds for a feature-length film.

The film industry's shift from celluloid film reels to hard-disc drives has already hurt the historic Ligonier Theatre.

The theater, which has been screening movies since the 1940s, has been dark the past several weekends, unable to find movies available on 35 mm film reels, Executive Director Eric Harris said.

The theater is owned by the nonprofit group the Valley Players of Ligonier, which uses the venue to stage a handful of live theatrical performances each year. In between stage productions, though, the theater would be idle if not for movie screenings.

“The movies provide a pretty steady cash flow,” Harris said. “We rely on the movies to pay the bills. We only get about five live shows a year, so the rest of the time, it's movies.”

The group has set a fundraising goal of $200,000 to defray the cost of purchasing and installing a new digital projector, surround sound system, speakers and screen.

Aside from nostalgia, there's little value in producing movies on 35 mm film, according to experts. Prints on 35 mm film reels are more expensive to produce: about $1,500 per copy compared with roughly $150 for a hard disc containing a digital version of the same movie. Film reels are bulky and — at about 100 pounds for a feature-length film — costly to ship. Picture quality on film reels begins degrading “from the moment it leaves the studio,” according to Mike Hurley, owner of the Colonial Theatre in Belfast, Maine, which recently made the switch to digital.

Digital movies can be replayed countless times without any change in picture quality. Hard disks are inexpensive to produce, lightweight and easily shipped. Some theaters can even skip the shipping entirely by downloading digital versions of films directly from the studios via satellite, Harris said.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the 5,700 theaters in the United States — and more than 90 percent of the 40,405 individual screens — have converted to digital equipment, according to Patrick Corcoran, Director of Media and Research for the National Association of Theatre Owners. The average cost per screen to convert to digital is about $70,000, according to Corcoran, but costs vary based on numerous factors.

The Ligonier Theatre kicked off its fundraising campaign in September, and Harris is hoping to have sufficient funding to complete the conversion before studios stop producing 35-mm prints.

As more theaters convert to digital equipment, studios produce fewer 35 mm prints, making competition for film reels fiercer between theaters still using non-digital projectors.

“June or July, that's probably when it's really going to get bad, once the drive-ins open back up and the distributors don't have film,” Harris said. “I think right now, they're probably making about 100 (non-digital) prints for the whole country.”

Most large “first-run” theaters made use of incentives offered by movie studios, called “virtual print fees,” to convert their screens to digital equipment. Smaller theaters had to find ways to fund digital conversions.

The Colonial Theatre, for example, has instituted a program dubbed “Quarters for Conversion,” which urges patrons to donate an extra 25 cents with each box office ticket purchase.

The theater's “Friends of the Colonial” campaign offers rewards ranging from a lapel pin to private movie showings and one-year movie passes for larger donations.

“We're like public radio now,” Hurley joked. “We never stop asking for money.”

So far, the Colonial has raised roughly $25,000 in a little more than a year of fundraising efforts, according to Hurley.

The Ligonier Theatre's fundraising campaign has primarily relied upon seeking donations via social media, printed brochures and newspaper briefs. The theater has raised more than $1,100, Harris said.

Harris said the R. K. Mellon Family Foundation has contacted him regarding a donation to the conversion project, and he plans to seek contributions from other area businesses.

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913 or greinbold@tribweb.com.

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