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End of the reel thing for small movie theaters?

Oct. 3, 2011 - 19:25 By
GALVA, Illinois ― One hundred and sixty miles southwest of Chicago, a man has planted a pair of reconditioned 20-by-48-foot drive-in movie screens in what used to be a cornfield.

I went out there the other night, to Galva Autovue Drive-in (admission: $3 for anyone older than 3), owned and operated by a full-time factory worker, mellow drive-in fanatic and Peoria native named Justin West. “Cool” doesn’t begin to describe it. The Autovue was one of the great outdoor film-going experiences of my life. Beautiful late-summer weather. The Big Dipper tipping high above the screen showing “Captain America: The First Avenger.” A concession stand in a steel building serving Sprecher’s root beer, “cheesy tots” and excellent popcorn. A slow cooker filled with melted butter, inches from the cash register. It was enough to make a nostalgist weep buttery tears of joy.

But a question kept nagging at the experience: How much longer will something like this be around?

It’s not just drive-ins I’m talking about. I mean movie theaters, outdoor or indoor, showing films on actual 35mm film, on big platters, instead of being projected digitally. West finds himself faced with an expensive decision. Right now it costs about $75,000 per screen to convert to digital projection. That’s $150,000 (lower if he waits a couple of years for used equipment) for a weather-dependent outdoor theater open four or five months out of the year, in a town of 2,589 at the last census.

So does he pony up or, in a year or two or three, call it a day?

“I don’t know,” West says.

This weekend, West closes up shop for the season with “Spy Kids 4” and “I Don’t Know How She Does It.”

“This place,” West says, “has paid for itself, though it hasn’t really given me anything else. But I enjoy it.”

He loved drive-ins as a kid. When he left Peoria for college in the early 1980s and returned four years later, his favorite drive-ins were already gone. The Autovue keeps the dream and the tradition alive, he says.
Rebecca Lyon finishes threading one of the film projectors at the Music Box Theater on Southport Avenue in Chicago on Sept. 25. (MCT)

But “this conversion to digital the film companies are forcing on the theaters ― I know it’s going to save them a lot of money ...” West says, his voice trailing off. Bucking every entertainment trend on the planet, West opened the Autovue in 2005. “Ever since I opened I’ve had people come up to me in one of the projection booths and ask: ‘Where are the DVD players?’ They don’t have a clue how this works!” He chuckles, ruefully. West thinks a lot about how the forced conversion from film to digital will zero out an untold number of small-town theaters, outdoor and indoor, along with various second-run houses in larger urban areas.

A figure commonly batted around: 75 percent of box-office revenue comes from 25 percent of the theaters. “So that means the other 75 percent can die off and the film companies won’t be too worried about it,” West says.

Average moviegoers don’t know or care much about whether the film they’re seeing is being projected digitally or on 35mm film stock. Digital has been with us for several years now; the distinction is blurred. And the projection conditions vary widely from screen to screen, from multiplex to multiplex.

Still, “You don’t have that graininess with digital,” says Doug Knight, general manager of Knight’s Action Park and Route 66 Twin Drive-In in Springfield, Illinois, the state’s only digital projection drive-in. (Illinois has 11 drive-ins still operating.) Knight claims his business is up around 15 to 20 percent since installing the digital projection system.

Higher up the food chain, you don’t hear a peep about 35mm, except in comparison to buggy-whip manufacturers in the early days of the automobile. Chris McGurk is in the catbird seat; as chief executive officer of Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp., in Woodland Hills, Calif., he’s making millions in the business of installing digital cinema equipment. Is there any incentive for the six major film studios, plus all the other film distributors, to continue striking film prints for exhibition?

“None whatsoever. None,” he says. “The studios will save over a billion dollars a year in distribution costs. It took probably five, 10 years too long to even get to this point in digital conversion because this industry is very resistant to change ... a lot of talent was suspicious of the new medium. Some people were, and are, wedded to film, the arguing being that it’s ‘richer,’ it’s this, it’s that, it’s the other thing. Which is not true.”

Some numbers: Film distributors commonly spend $1,200-$1,300 to strike a single 35mm print, plus shipping costs. Digital delivery of a new release, by contrast, is more like $100, according to Cinedigm’s McGurk.

By Michael Phillips

(Chicago Tribune)

(MCT Information Services)