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Digital or Die

Theaters scramble for pricey new projectors

At the nonprofit Hiway Theatre in Jenkintown, Michael Kost threads 35mm film. "If we don't have a digital projector," said a top Hiway official, "we will not be able to participate in the movie industry." TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
At the nonprofit Hiway Theatre in Jenkintown, Michael Kost threads 35mm film. "If we don't have a digital projector," said a top Hiway official, "we will not be able to participate in the movie industry." TOM GRALISH / Staff PhotographerRead more

The venerable Hiway Theatre in Jenkintown needs to come up with $100,000 - and fast.

No money, no Hiway.

Sound dramatic? It is. The Hiway, like scores of small theaters across the country, has been pinched between present and future as big movie studios rapidly shift to digital production and distribution, abandoning traditional film.

For theaters, the cost to buy digital-projection equipment runs about $100,000 per screen. That sum may be painful to big chains, but to smaller independent and nonprofit theaters, it's life-threatening.

"We're not trying to scare people," said Hiway executive director Fred Kaplan-Mayer, but "if we don't have a digital projector, we will not be able to participate in the movie industry."

The good news: So far, the Hiway has raised $50,000 in donations through its "Screen Saver" campaign, which began at Thanksgiving. Kaplan-Mayer is cautiously optimistic that the theater will reach its goal, sticking around to celebrate its 100th birthday this year.

It's a paramount moment for the industry. The National Association of Theater Owners calls the transition to digital the most important change since the invention of talkies. That late-1920s revolution, coupled with the Great Depression, killed theaters for much the same reason that digital threatens - cost.

"Most people are going to figure out a way to do it," said Russ Collins, director of the Michigan-based Art House Convergence, an organization of independent community theaters. "And there are probably going to be some very tragic stories. Change causes those things."

It's causing one here: Cinema 16:9, the quirky three-screen theater in Lansdowne, plans to close Feb. 28, overwhelmed by the economics of digital compliance.

"We're going to lose a lot of theaters - a lot," owner David Titus said as he prepared to end his four-year-old creation, housed in the Lansdowne Theater.

Titus said his 60-, 40-, and 10-seat auditoriums use early digital projectors, not the new ones that are becoming standard. To pay for that equipment, the cinema would need to show more popular mainstream and indie films, like Silver Linings Playbook. But a 60-seat theater can't generate the income to pay a distributor to provide those sorts of movies.

Collins, who works as CEO of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, said the ability of theaters to convert depends on their individual economic health and business environment - and often on their ability to secure bank loans.

Several local theaters have undertaken fund-raising campaigns.

The historic, nonprofit Newtown Theatre in Bucks County has brought in $60,000 during the last 11 months, and needs an additional $40,000, according to its website.

The three-screen Ambler Theater announced Monday that it had installed new digital projectors, after an 18-month effort that raised $376,000. The Bryn Mawr Film Institute put in projectors last month after raising $500,000 with the help of the actor Ben Kingsley. The County Theater in Doylestown got two projectors in June, after a 14-month campaign garnered $310,000.

"It put a lot of pressure on us," said John Toner, executive director of Renew Theaters, which runs the nonprofit County and Ambler. "We needed to make it happen to stay alive."

The scary part, he said, is that digital projectors are basically computers - and that means the technology will advance. The industry promises the current generation will last 10 years, he said, but "how many people do you know who are using 10-year-old computers?"

Change is coming fast. In 2007, only 12 percent of U.S. movie screens had digital projection. In 2011, it was 64 percent, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

The great Slumdog Millionaire was shot on a mix of film and digital. So was Zodiac. And others.

For studios and distributors, digital is cheaper to make and ship. To cite one measure of savings: Creating 35mm film requires silver. The price of that element has jumped during the last decade from $5 to $30 an ounce.

The film studio 20th Century Fox has said it would phase out all 35mm film by the end of 2013, and other companies are expected to follow.

"It's not going to be good," said Newt Wallen, an independent filmmaker in Cherry Hill, who once ran the Broadway Theatre in Pitman. "A lot of these indie theaters already struggle."

David Robison, chairman of the economics department at La Salle University, expects many smaller theaters to disappear. Those that endure will face technology shifts similar to the way typical DVDs are giving way to Blu-ray and high-definition formats. Competition will only grow.

It has never been easier for people to see the movies they want to see - without going to a theater. Laptops and cellphones offer new screens. On-Demand services bring movies to TVs; Netflix mails or streams them to homes; and Redbox has $1-a-movie dispensers at nearly 35,000 locations.

One impact: Total movie admissions in the United States and Canada have slid, down 4 percent from 1.6 billion in 2002 to 1.3 billion in 2011.

The Hiway opened in 1913 as the Jenkintown Auditorium, and over time changed owners and names, becoming the Embassy, the York Road, the Hiway, the Merlin, and the Chas III. In 2003, it was bought by a nonprofit group and, three years later, underwent a $1.6 million renovation that restored its 1940s charm.

The goal was to create a showplace and an anchor for Jenkintown, where the business corridor has suffered. A 2010 study described the Hiway as key to luring businesses and foot traffic - meaning more than a theater hangs on digital conversion.

The Hiway sent out a plea: "No projector, no movies, no Hiway." People have responded. Last month, hometown star Bradley Cooper, the lead of Silver Linings Playbook, shot a CBS interview at the Hiway, which now has a lobby poster of him holding a "Screen Saver" sign.

"One of the things that's unique about the Hiway is people feel this is their theater," Kaplan-Mayer said. "People don't go to a Regal and feel it's their theater. Our existence, our ability to raise this money, doesn't happen without community support. People are really interested in helping us give them what they want - movies, for generations to come."

A video explores the Hiway Theatre's efforts

to convert to digital projection:

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