It’s another bit of Americana that’s fading away.
For most of the first century of cinema, patrons sat in theaters to watch movies that were shot and distributed on film that a projectionist operated.
These days, though, many movie theaters are facing a Darwinian dilemma: adapt or die.
The Parkway Discount Theater in Warner Robins will do the latter sometime this month because it’s cost prohibitive for them to do the former.
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The theater, owned by the Georgia Theater Co., shows second-run movies -- that is, big-name movies that already have been out for a couple of months -- but at a reduced price. Patrons who don’t want to pay $10 a ticket to see a blockbuster the weekend it opens could wait several weeks until the fervor had died down, then see it at the Parkway for $2.50.
But the movie studios have all but abandoned distributing copies of movies on film anymore, since digital prints are more convenient in many ways.
Traditional film decays over time, it’s easily damaged, it’s more expensive to print and is of poorer quality than its digital cousin.
In the current age of cinema, digital prints are, in fact, small hard drives that simply need to be plugged into a projector. One hard drive can connect to as many screens inside a theater as the management likes, and it’s far less likely to be damaged. And, projected onto specially made digital screens, the movies look and sound better than in the past.
EXPENSIVE TO CHANGE
Bill Stembler, CEO of the Georgia Theatre Co., said the cost of converting all of his equipment isn’t feasible, especially since multiplexes have several theaters inside.
“It’s questionable whether you could recover your investment,” he said. “It’s something like $50,000 to $70,000 a screen to convert to digital.”
Stembler, who once worked at the famed Fox Theatre in Atlanta, acknowledged the advantage that digital has over film.
“All in all, digital is much better for our theaters and our patrons because the image you show the first day of the release of a movie is the same 30 days later, whereas with film, it degrades every time you run it through a projector,” he said.
Had Parkway charged more per ticket, it might have been able to pay to convert its equipment. But increasing ticket prices defeats the purpose of having second-run theaters in the first place.
The movie studios provide a subsidy called virtual print fees to help theaters offset the costs of converting equipment to digital. The studios can help pay for this because they get a percentage of the ticket revenue when patrons are charged full price.
The formula, however, breaks down at small theaters such as Parkway, which charge discounted tickets. Studios can’t recover the costs of virtual print fees.
Macon’s Amstar 16 Theater on Zebulon Road has long been a leader in the technology curve.
It was the first theater in Middle Georgia to have digital projection and screens and the first to use IMAX projectors.
Wes Clark, the theater’s general manager, said the movie “Avatar,” released in 2009, essentially started the trend of theaters converting to digital formats.
Because that movie was shot with revolutionary new 3-D technology, it couldn’t be shown on traditional film prints.
“The industry was heading to the digital age,” he said. “It was in the collective interests between the studios and the exhibitors to change. It was only a matter of time before film was not as available per movie.”
Digital projectors allow Amstar some versatility when it comes to screening popular movies.
For example, for midnight showings of blockbusters such as “The Dark Knight Rises,” Clark was able to use several screens to accommodate the large crowd simply by pressing a few buttons.
In the old days of film, Clark said, trying something similar would have proven much more challenging. It would have required the film to be looped through several projectors, which would then have been required to start rolling the film at a precise moment.
“We tried to show ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ by running it through three projectors -- and it shut down twice,” Clark recalled. “People were banging on the glass” to the projection room.
Some movie houses that show second-run and art films are still surviving, however. In Athens, the Cine’, a two-screen art house, switched to digital equipment by raising $140,000 rather than accept virtual print fees because that would have let the studio dictate what gets shown, said Sara Beresford, a Cine’ board member.
“I think for a lot of art house cinema operators, there were too many strings attached to that agreement,” she said.
When Parkway closes, manager Alicia Bowers will no longer work with film. In some ways, it will be a relief for her, because of all the work involved in setting up the theater’s projectors.
The film is usually delivered with two or three reels per box, weighing 20 to 30 pounds each, she said. The average summer blockbuster is six to eight reels.
“To get it in the door, you’ve got to build it and put it on the platter system,” she said. “And then it’s got to be built accurately and (make sure) the sound levels are good and the picture quality is good. ... When it’s on the ground, it’s a mess. It takes an hour to two hours (to set up), so it’s not easy.”
Even when it’s set up, Bowers said, the equipment sometimes doesn’t work correctly -- the projector may run too fast or not at all.
By contrast, Clark said he hasn’t had a projectionist since 2012. The digital projectors are almost completely automated.
“One big advantage, and one big disadvantage, is that you don’t have anyone ready to assist on any issues that might arise,” he said. “The great advantage is that it’s all automated, but when there is a problem, it can be cumbersome. You have to make the time to address the customers about the issue. You’re wearing two different hats.”
Clark, however, said there are no complaints once the movie starts.
“There are no complaints about the picture quality,” he said. “There’s no scratches. There’s no opportunity for scratches.”
In a bit of unintentional irony, there are still small scraps of film bundled on racks inside Amstar’s digital projection booth. They sit in front of a poster for “The Artist,” an Oscar-winning movie about a silent film star trying to adjust to the end of an era with the new world of “talking pictures” in the 1920s.
“I certainly think the change (to digital) has come at the right time,” Clark said.