TRAVERSE CITY — The clickety-clackety you sometimes hear from the projection booth at your favorite theater soon may be a thing of the past.
Hollywood is phasing out 35 mm film for digital movies. By the end of 2013, according to some estimates, there may not be any films made on film.
That leaves many small community theaters scrambling to convert to digital equipment — at a cost of about $70,000 to $80,000 a screen — or risk being able to show first-run movies.
"It's a precarious situation for any single-screen movie theater across the country that would be in a small community, because the cost of the conversion to digital is prohibitive based on what you make from ticket sales," said Rick Schmitt, co-owner of the Garden Theater in Frankfort. "If we had to raise the money from what we show, it would take years and years and by then we would be out of business in terms of running first-run films."
Schmitt said the theater has already done some advance work, like electrical hookups and investing in new sound equipment that would be compatible with digital equipment, lowering its remaining conversion cost to about $60,000. But even at that, the theater will likely have to launch a capital campaign to raise the funds, he said.
And that means asking for help from a community that already raised a half-million dollars for the theater's recent renovation.
The Bay Theater in Suttons Bay isn't that far along, but is gathering information and quotes on digital equipment.
"It's pretty daunting really," said manager and programmer Denise Sica. "It's like asking a business to spend a whole bunch of money on parts without having any guarantee that it will increase your business. But we intend to stay up to date with the industry so we can continue to provide the kind of programming we do."
Sica said she isn't sure how the theater might pay for the conversion or when it will happen, since timetables for ending 35 mm film distribution vary from studio to studio. Since the theater isn't nonprofit, she said she'll look to special offers or deals that would make it easier.
"The good news is that $70,000 (conversion) number was $100,000 two years ago," said Schmitt, "and as more theaters buy the equipment the price will come down and there will be used systems that will come on the market.
"I will say that there is a movement out there that indicates that the studios themselves may be interested in functioning as a bank: One, to help finance completely, or two, work with favorable percents of gates. So they would potentially be looking to partner with theaters," Schmitt said.
Even if theater owners can find the money to convert to digital, they'll have to continue to shell out to stay up to date, warned Deb Lake, executive director of the Traverse City Film Festival and its State Theatre, which has both 35 mm film and digital capabilities.
"The problem is that these projectors now are just like computers," she said. "With computers, you might buy the latest and greatest, and in a couple of years it's junk. That's the same thing that's happening with projectors. With digital, the technology changes almost every week. And there's no clear leader on which technology is better. No matter what you get is going to be out of date in three years."
It's an investment Joseph Yuchasz, owner of the Elk Rapids Cinema, may not be willing to make, especially since it's not clear to him when — or if — 35 mm films will stop being made. Even if 60 percent of the approximately 40,000 commercial movie screens have converted to digital, as the National Association of Theater Owners claims, that leaves 40 percent — or about 1,600 screens — that have not, he said.
And most of them are in small towns where converting to digital might not be possible.
"Most of the pundits who are talking this impending doom are people who are selling the (digital) equipment. So if right now we're talking 1,600 screens that haven't converted, are they going to say goodbye to 1.600 screens? I don't think so," Yuchasz said. "Besides, how fast can they make them, install them?"
For now Yuchasz is taking a wait-and-see attitude, even if means waiting three or four weeks longer for 35 mm films because there are fewer copies in circulation. While that's more than enough time for the pool of potential ticket-buyers to lose interest or see the movie elsewhere, he and the other small theater owners say their mostly older audiences are prepared to cool their heels in order to see it in their own town.
"I called in January for 'The Descendants' and I showed it last week," Yuchasz said. "Ninety percent of my audience is over 50. And if you're over 50, you're not in a rush."