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Digital Age Prompting Closure of Military Base Movie Theaters

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Military base movie theaters are closing because of the shift to digital projection.

Here’s an interesting piece by Dirk Lammers of the San Francisco Chronicle on the closing of numerous military base movie theaters around the globe, because they can’t get the funding to make the jump to digital projection. As Lammers writes of the photo above, “movie patrons wait for the showing of Hotel Transylvania inside the theater on Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota on its last day of operation, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service theater serving airmen and their families is one of 60 across the globe that’s closing because it’s too expensive to switch from 35 millimeter film prints to an all-digital projection format.

Stacey Darling loves watching family movies at the Ellsworth Air Force Base theater in South Dakota because it’s so much more affordable than taking her three children to the multiplex in nearby Rapid City. Darling, whose husband is an airman, has been catching second-run films on base for about 2 1/2 years, and was there Saturday for the theater’s last showing. The movie theater is among 60 around the globe run by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service that is screening its last picture show amid the industry’s conversion to digital projection.

Darling said she wishes she could go to the theater even more now that her husband, Senior Master Sgt. David Darling, has deployed to southwest Asia. [But] it’s just not cost effective for the exchange service to invest the $120,000 per theater needed to convert from 35 millimeter film to the new format at the theaters that are being closed, said spokesman Judd Anstey. ‘At locations where customer attendance is decreased due to a preference for off-installation entertainment venues, a determination has been made that continued operation is no longer a viable option,’ Anstey said.”

I have only this to say: $120,000 a theater to convert to digital? This is too much money? These theaters provide both entertainment and a meeting place for those in the armed forces; once again, one more place for people to gather together and share a sense of community is vanishing in the digital era.

Read the entire article by clicking here.

1,000 Small Theaters Can’t Convert to Digital

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Everyone seems to be talking about this piece in Indiewire today, and with good reason.

It’s written by Michael Hurley, who owns the Colonial Theatre in Belfast, Maine as well as the Temple Theatre in Houlton, Maine, and knows precisely whereof he speaks. As he notes, “‘Convert or die.’ This is how John Fithian, CEO and president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, has repeatedly set the terms. It’s crude, but at least we knew where we stood. The conversion stampede was on.

Many theaters that never thought they’d go digital are now adopting at a fast pace. One of my theaters, The Colonial Theatre, will be 100 years old in April. We’re in the midst of conversion; I accept and embrace that day. Every time I see platter scratches, or receive a scratched and dirty print, or deal with a particularly odd projectionist, I look forward to it more and more.

But it hasn’t happened fast enough. At the end of 2011, Fox announced they’d no longer release product in 35mm “sometime in the next year or two.” Also ending soon: The VPF, or virtual print fee. Since 2009, film distributors have paid VPFs to exhibitors. Based on the difference between the cost of a celluloid print and digital delivery, it’s designed to help theater owners offset the cost of a digital cinema retrofit, which costs about $65,000 at the low end. (A new projector, by comparison, was about $20,000 — but that was before you’d pay people to take them away.)

The VPF has helped some, but not all. As a result, NATO recently estimated that up to 20% of theaters in North America, representing up to 10,000 screens, would not convert and would probably close. ‘Convert or die,’ indeed. And that’s from someone representing theater owners.”

But there really is no choice. 35mm prints, as Hurley notes, are simply going to cease to exist. 35mm raw film stock is also increasingly hard to come by; nearly everything today is shot in digital format. Theaters that don’t convert will simply have no product to run, except for older, archival films, which would be great, but most people simply stream these classic titles, or buy or rent the DVD.

I’ve seen this coming for more than a decade, and I predicted in a lecture in Stockholm, Sweden in 2000 or so that this would happen within ten years, and also in an NPR interview in the late 1990s. In Stockholm, one of the members of the audience, a young woman, looked at me with great concern, and said “what you’re talking about is happening only in one small theater in New York, while there are literally millions of 35mm prints of films in existence, and tens of thousands of theaters all over the world equipped for 35mm projection. The technology has been with us for nearly a century. It can’t possibly go away.”

“Well,” I responded, “The Jazz Singer originally opened in just one theater in New York . . .” — and now the same thing is happening with digital cinema. There simply will be no 35mm prints, outside of museums and archives, to project. More than that, parts and supplies for 35mm projection equipment are already becoming difficult to get, as well as service for the machines. 35mm is done; digital is the new standard. As brutal as John Fithian’s statement is, it’s just the simple truth. There is no 35mm anymore. It’s digital, all the way.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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