For Doylestown's County Theater, like most of the 5,700 movie theaters around the country, it's a black-or-white, open-and-shut proposition.
It can stick with 35 mm projectors, a technology that has barely changed in 75 years, and ultimately be phased out of business. Or it can take the leap into the digital age, embracing the biggest advance since "talkies."
"The primary issue isn't improved quality," theater executive director John David Toner said last week. "If we don't have the digital equipment, we won't be able to show the films we have in the past. And if we can't show those films, we can't stay open."
Thanks to a fund-raising campaign that reaped $310,000, the two-screen, 275-seat theater will officially launch its Digital Cinema Projection systems Thursday, showing Moonrise Kingdom with Bruce Willis and Woody Allen's To Rome With Love.
The fully computerized systems have been running "in previews" for two weeks without most viewers realizing it, Toner said. There has been a good reaction from people who know about the equipment, such as members of the board of directors.
"It's like switching from regular TV to high-definition TV," he said. "You know you're looking at a really nice picture, but it doesn't hit you till you go back and look at regular TV."
Digital movies have "brighter, crisper, cleaner images" than 35 mm films, Toner said. The format is "more stable, it doesn't get scratches, it doesn't bob up and down."
Theaters have been converting to high-definition digital projectors since 2009, when they were needed to show James Cameron's 3D blockbuster, Avatar. About 60 percent, including the majority of the large chain theaters, have made the switch, as the industry aims to discontinue production of 35 mm films next year.
The reason is money. A digital movie - copied on a hard drive that is slightly larger than a VCR tape - costs about $150 to produce and ship, compared with about $1,500 for six to eight reels of 35 mm film.
But the conversion is expensive for theaters - about $110,000 per screen - threatening smaller movie houses. The National Association of Theatre Owners estimates that 20 percent of theaters in North America, representing up to 10,000 screens, will not convert and will probably close.
The County Theater, which shows first-run, art, independent, and foreign films, is "ahead of the curve" for small theaters, Toner said. Its 4,100 members and other supporters responded to a Digital Cinema Challenge by surpassing the $200,000 goal for a minimal conversion.
The additional $110,000 paid for a full conversion, including 3D in one auditorium, projectors with capacity for 4,000 lines of resolution (2,000 lines is the current standard), new screens, and other equipment.
In addition to the theater on East State Street with its distinctive art deco features, Toner runs the Ambler Theater, which is on track to make the digital conversion by the end of the year. More than $240,000 has been raised, with a goal of $300,000 for the three-screen, 520-seat theater on East Butler Avenue.
In lower Bucks County, the historic Newtown Theater isn't nearly so far along, collecting $12,500 of its $100,000 goal. But the single-screen, 353-seat theater will have a digital projector by the end of the year, general manager Eric Silverman said, "if I have to stand in the street with a jar, collecting money."
John Toner, executive director of the County Theater in Doylestown, discusses conversion from 35 mm projectors to digital computer systems at www.philly.com/countytheaterEndText