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So Long, Film: Movie Theaters Struggle to Keep Up With Digital Conversion

LEXINGTON, Ky. - It's a busy time of year for the movie industry. Oscar nominations were announced Thursday and the Golden Globes award show is set for Sunday.

Because of an ongoing shift behind the scenes, many theaters across the country may soon be unable to show movies.  Hollywood studios are expected to fully switch from 35 mm film to digital distribution sometime this year, and that’s putting a strain on local movie houses.

The projection room at the 90-year-old Kentucky Theater in downtown Lexington holds three Century projectors. It takes just a couple minutes to load up the movie reels and feed the film through the machine and the projectors are running just as strong as when they were built in the 1950s.

The 35 mm film projectors survived a fire that heavily damaged the theater in 1987, but it’s Hollywood’s transition to only digital distribution of movies that will one day make them obsolete – possibly sometime this year.

“If the film’s not available and you haven’t made the conversion, of course then you’re sort of out of business or you’re limited as to what you might show,” says Fred Mills, manager of the Kentucky Theatre.

The Kentucky generally shows independent films not carried by the major multiplexes. But occasionally the Kentucky will go head-to-head with the big-name cinemas. Take the movie Silver Linings Playbook.

If you see Silver Linings Playbook at the Kentucky Theatre, you’ll be watching 35 mm film, but it’s all digital at Cinemark and Regal Cinemas. 

Changing Technology

Patrick Corcoran with the National Association of Theatre Owners says digital movies have better quality and are more durable.

“So you don’t have scratches, you don’t have fading, or the little shake you get sometimes with it.”

Audience experience is one reason why Hollywood switching from film to digital. The other reason, comes down to money. Sending out a movie through a digital server is a lot more cost-effective than mailing heavy canisters of film.

“Moving to digital distribution and prints is going to save the studios about a billion dollars a year, forever,” says Corcoran.

The movement to digital started about ten years ago, and Corcoran says so far about 67% of theaters in the U.S. have converted representing 83% of screens.

Expensive Upgrades

The theater owners who haven’t switched generally represent independent, smaller movie houses and rural theaters.

“It’s just the cost of it upfront,” says Glenda Mullins, owner of Bluegrass Theaters.

Mullins inherited Winchester Movies 9 and the Skyvue Drive-In from her brother, and she’d like to keep the theaters in the family. But at cost of $50,000-75,000 per screen to upgrade the projectors, Mullins may forced to sell.

“It’s really a fun business and it makes money. But to invest a lot of money right now in the business it would take at least 10 years to get that investment back. With me in my 60s, I would probably not see that return on that investment.”

The historic Kentucky Theatre also doesn’t have funds to buy new projectors, so a group called Friends of the Kentucky is raising money through donations, events, and an upcoming auction. Project organizer Harold Tate says patrons can even buy their own seat.

“And you will get your name on the arm of the chair. So you’ll have your own chair at the Kentucky that you can call your own.”

Reality of Business

The National Association of Theatre Owners has helped establish programs to assist movie houses in making the switch to digital, such as a virtual print fee and the Cinema Buying Group. Still, thousands of theaters could eventually shut down.

“It’s a fact of life and it’s sad,” says Corcoran.  “I mean particularly local, small-town movie theaters are an important part of our industry.

Hollywood hasn’t set a hard deadline for when 35 mm film production will be no more. Corcoran calls it a moving target based on costs and potential lost revenue.

For Fred Mills, who started working at the Kentucky Theatre back in 1963, his favorite place to watch movies will be ready.

“It's really the way things are and certainly don’t want to be left behind.”

And as for the 1955 Century projectors, Mills says they’ll always have a home at the theater, even if they're not in use.

Lexington native Brenna Angel anchored local morning newscasts for WUKY through May 13. She joined the station in March 2010 after previously working for WHAS-AM in Louisville.
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