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A technological makeover of the movie industry is in full effect as studios are permanently ditching traditional reels of celluloid film for hard drives.
The transition to digital media has meant cheaper distribution costs for studios, eliminated tedious preparations for theater operators, and brought crisp, clear images, along with state-of-the-art sound, to viewers.
“Instead taking an hour to set up a show, all I have to do is shove a disc into the hard drive, and it takes less than five minutes,” said Rick Cohen, owner of Transit Drive-in Theatre in Lockport, which converted to digital in March. “And the quality is amazing – the dirt, dust, scratches and color-fade over time are all eliminated. The color remains vibrant.”
Furthermore, the drive-in has enjoyed a 12 percent spike in ticket sales since the conversion.
But those benefits come at a high price for theater owners. It’s $50,000 to $75,000 a pop to convert one screen to digital. Cohen paid $300,000 for four digital projectors for his four screens.
“It’s an improvement, and whenever you can improve your presentation and give your customer a better quality product that’s worth paying for,” he said. “I looked at this as an opportunity to upgrade my business and my customers agreed.”
While big theater chains here and around the country have or are in the midst of replacing their 35mm systems with digital units, many small independent movie houses are in a state of panic. They can’t afford the digital projectors.
“For large theaters, the conversion is just a balance sheet, but for the small, independent operators, they don’t have that kind of volume of sales,” Cohen said.
Yet with the industry swiftly doing away with film in the next year or two, it’s becoming a do-or-die reality for these small operators. It could mean an end to long-standing, family-run businesses, like small-town historic Aurora Theatre in East Aurora.
“We’re already having a hard time getting 35 millimeter movies,” said Lynn Kinsella, owner of the Aurora Theatre with her husband, Paul. “We’re kind of feeling we have to do it sooner or later. It’s all about what films you get. It is almost like gambling – you gamble your audience will come in and see a movie, buy concessions and come back.”
In Aurora’s case, it means a $75,000 investment for the 646-seat movie house that features a 38-foot-by-16-foot screen, one of the biggest ones in Western New York.
For theaters with multiple screens, conversion costs add up quickly. It’s about $500,000 for MovieLand 8 in Cheektowaga to make the transition to digitalization for its eight theaters.
“We are the only discount house in the Buffalo area; I’d hate to see us close the doors,” said Mike Kostysyn, one of the three owners. “But I don’t see that happening; I’m sure we’re going to get through it somehow.”

Rapid change

Technology has permeated and improved all facets of media an entertainment – from HD TV to digital cameras – so operators knew the digital switch was on the horizon. But studios are making the move more quickly than many thought.
“We thought we had more time to do the conversion, probably 10 years or so,” said Kostysyn. “But last year, we realized we didn’t when other theaters started going digital.”
In the Kinsellas’ case in East Aurora, the couple bought the theater in 2010, unaware of the looming change in the industry.
In a tight economy, $75,000 is a big bite, but it’s necessary for the Aurora Theatre’s survival. The Kinsellas are getting creative in fundraising to help offset the sting. They also realize they’ll have to borrow money to make the digitalization happen.
“I’m trying to take the creative approach. The business can’t bear a huge debt,” Lynn Kinsella said. “You really just have to be smart about it. Sure, we’ll have to put money forward on this, absolutely.”
Lynn Kinsella is floating a few ideas – chief among them offering for sale what she describes as “heavy-duty stickers” that are laminated to adhere to the backs of theatre seats to resemble a brass plate with screws going into the seats. Patrons can pay $100 for a sign with a personal message and design and pick the seat they want.
In Lockport, a community drive is under way to pay for digital projector for the historic Palace Theater, and essentially save the movie house. Residents are being asked to donate $5.
At MovieLand 8, a search for grants and a loan is on to cover the costs.
Cohen is baffled that fellow owners are scrambling.
“They knew it was coming but didn’t want to recognize the inevitability of it; nobody wants to be forced to invest tens of thousands of dollars in order to keep the doors open,” he said. “But they shouldn’t have been blindsided by this.”
He said he began planning a decade ago to purchase digital projectors. The signs of an imminent changeover were plentiful and began appearing years ago, Cohen said, including the larger circuits, like AMC and Regal, announcing in 2007 their plans to convert. The large chains account for 90 percent of movie studios’ clientele.
“Independents are a very small piece of the pie, so they are not going to continue to manufacture film for the theaters that are the least profitable,” said Cohen, who is a member the National Movie Theatre Owners Association and sits on its technology committee.

Long-term benefits

In March, the Transit Drive-In’s new concession stand, along with the new projectors, was built. The project totaled $1.5 million. Cohen held a movie poster and speaker sale and took out a $750,000 loan. Since drive-ins are seasonal business, the conversion is even more costly for them. But Cohen’s drive-in, which as been in his family since 1957, is one of the most profitable in the country so the investment was worthwhile, he said. Cohen encourages other operators to bite the bullet and pay the initial cost to convert because its an upgrade to their businesses with long-term benefits.
Showing movies at the drive-in has been simplified with the conversion. Before digital, bulky reels of film, weighing 70 pounds would be shipped for $200 by studios to exhibitors. Operators would than have to splice the films into one strip usually two miles long in a process that took an hour. After a theater is done showing a movie, the strip would have to be taken apart and sent back with the exhibitor paying the $200 mailing cost.
Now Cohen receives a disk in 4 pound box and inserts it into a hard drive. Movies can also be sent to theaters via satellite. The prep work has been eliminated and the shipping costs have decreased dramatically or erased.
Kostysyn said he and his partners are excited about the benefits of digital media. He admits he and other theater owners knew the switch was coming — it was inevitable — but they still don’t know when the final roll of celluloid will be shipped.

News reporter Karen Robinson contributed to this story. email: esapong@buffnews.com