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The final credits could soon be rolling on downtown Buffalo’s only movie theater.

Movie studios are about to begin providing digital downloads only to theaters – instead of film in metal canisters.

To continue in business, the publicly run Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre, which already struggles financially, would have to upgrade its digital projectors – an estimated expenditure of $420,000.

Brendan R. Mehaffy, who heads the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, said the city, which owns the Market Arcade building, is not willing to spend the estimated $60,000 per projector required for the theater’s seven screens.

But the digital conversion may not be enough for a facility that has seen few upgrades in its 26-year history, since other significant improvements are considered necessary.

Wrestling with the problem are two not-for-profits – Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre Inc., which oversees the theater, and Buffalo Place, the agency that boosts downtown – and Dipson Theatres, the chain that operates the showplace.

Paramount Pictures has added to the sense of urgency, recently notifying booking agencies that “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” which opens Dec. 20, will be the last celluloid shipped out to theaters. Other studios are expected to soon follow suit.

Michael T. Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place and the theater’s treasurer, estimates that an additional $1.4 million would be needed to install stadium seating; add 3-D projection capabilities; and improve restrooms, the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system, the refreshment stand and signs – improvements needed to keep pace with other theaters. Other suggestions include reclining seats in some of the auditoriums, reservations, and more upscale food and beverage offerings.

“I know right now that it’s crunch time. We know that very soon, film will not be an option,” Schmand said.

“We are trying to work with some local folks to figure out if there is a way we can convert from film to digital. But the bigger picture here is, even if we convert to digital, we will have to improve the experience or we won’t be competitive.”

Bruce Jackson, Market Arcade’s vice chairman who, with Diane Christian, has for the last 14 years run the popular Buffalo Film Seminars – a weekly University at Buffalo course open to the public – said that it would be a terrible blow to the city if the theater is forced to close.

“If that theater goes dark, there will be no movie theater in downtown Buffalo – and I can’t think of any other city its size that doesn’t have a downtown movie theater,” Jackson said. “With the kind of development that is happening downtown, that’s an outrage, and it’s shameful – absolutely shameful.”

The movie theater is also the residence of Road Less Traveled, which produces live theater in one of the auditoriums.

But the building has not undergone any capital improvements since it opened a quarter-century ago, Schmand said.

The theater was built by the city, with the help of federal funding, and opened in 1987. The national chain General Cinema Corp. operated it until 1998, and was followed by Angelika Film Center, a small art house chain with its flagship theater in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The deal was sweetened with $200,000 from the city to improve the lobby appearance, which included hardwood floors and chandeliers.

But Angelika pulled out 11 months later, after exercising a contract-exit stipulation if money was lost in consecutive quarters.

Dipson took over management of the renamed Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre in June 2000, under the volunteer board of Market Film & Arts Center Inc. The board includes eight representatives of the mayor, three from Buffalo Place and two chosen by the Theatre District Association. The chairman, Anthony J. Colucci III, is also vice chairman and president of Buffalo Place.

The not-for-profit corporation pays Dipson a management fee for theater expenses, including staffing, security, film rental, janitorial and concession purchases. Buffalo Place provides support services, while the city covers utility costs.

The theater always has been plagued by sparse attendance, but its board and Buffalo Place see a big opportunity to turn things around, primed by the current downtown revival, including more people moving downtown, expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the return of car traffic to Main Street.

“Bringing traffic back to Main Street is going to be a huge shot in the arm for any businesses that are in the Theatre District. It would be a shame at this point that after holding on for so long, that we lose the theater at a time when downtown is on a resurgence,” Schmand said.

A movie house, he said, is an important part of the downtown mix – including ice skating, concerts, sporting events and farmers’ markets – for a successful downtown.

Closing the theater will make it harder to reopen, Schmand warned. “Once you lose a theater, it’s awfully difficult to open it back up,” he said. “We already have one, and we want to keep it open.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com