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Published on February 25th, 2013 | by Scott Jobe

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Convert or Perish: Our Indie Movie Theaters Weather the Transition to Digital

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I have fond memories of heading out to small, independent movie theaters in the Tacoma area. These theaters didn’t play the most current or popular films, but each had a unique and beautiful history. I loved the vintage seating, small lobbies with classic film posters on the walls, the personal thanks from the staff, and in-person film introductions by the theater owners. I connected to the films, but also to the theaters and their community.

Tacoma’s independent theaters are now the only game in town, bringing us films that the Lakewood and Gig Harbor multiplex’s typically don’t show. They also provide moviegoers with lower prices and an individuality that large chains can never provide. From the volunteers working the popcorn machine, to local film festivals and special showings of cult classics, there is warmth in smaller theaters that cannot be replaced.

Appreciation for independent films and art houses, combined with a sense of patron allegiance has kept our local gems alive in the last few decades. But now the small theaters in our community and across the nation face a new difficulty which could prove to be business-threatening: the costly necessity of digital film conversion.

A standard in place since the early 20th century, 35mm film has been how patrons viewed film in theaters. But just as computers brought the digital age into everyone’s home and compact discs replaced analog tape, film will have to make the conversion to the digital format as well.

In most cases, printing a film onto 35mm reels could cost up to $2,500. Then distribution centers would ship that reel, which could weigh as much as 70 pounds, to the selected theaters.

“One problem a cinema sometimes runs into is that it can be hard to get our hands on one of the limited number of 35mm prints of a film,” said Philip Cowan, Executive Director of The Grand Cinema.

With digital conversion, production, labor, and shipping costs are all dramatically lower. In addition to these savings, local theaters won’t need projectionists with special training who manually splice, mount, and thread the film. Many film distribution houses have already begun to ship movies in the cheaper digital format.

The digital format makes receiving a film by opening night much easier. Since the movie can be distributed at a lower price, it can be shipped to a wider range of theaters.

So now it’s more cost-effective to produce films (if we can even truly call them that anymore), and opportunities are emerging for up-and-coming filmmakers to put their creations on the big screen as well. With the elimination of expensive film processing, independent filmmakers can now more easily get their projects in front of an audience.

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While these positive industry changes are exciting, the driving concern behind the conversion is projector cost, and unfortunately the attempt to convert may close the doors to some of our favorite local theaters.

Both the Blue Mouse and The Grand Cinema theaters are making the conversion to a digital format, taking on almost insurmountable expenses. Costs are so high that we may not be able to see first run films within the Tacoma city limits if we are not an active part of the solution.

“At a cost of more than $75,000 per screen, a nonprofit like The Grand depends on community support to keep our screens alive with great independent film,” said Cowan.

Through a viral Kickstarter donation program, the Blue Mouse has already raised the amount needed to convert their single-screen theater. The Grand Cinema, on the other hand, still has a long way to go to complete the conversion on all four of their screens. They have successfully raised enough to begin the process, but the funds needed to upgrade their entire operation are still lacking.

I’m sure there are many Tacomans like myself who cherish their memories of seeing classic films in small local theaters. The history and personality they maintain are unchallenged by sterile corporate megaplexes. If we don’t help support these theaters during this game-changing moment, our fond memories of them may become just that – memories as faded as the glory days of celluloid.

Now is a great time to support the Grand: until the end of March, participate in their match challenge. Any donations over $25 will be matched by a generous anonymous donor, just include the words V-Day Match with your donation. Currently the Grand has raised over $100,000 but will need more than twice that to cover all the conversion costs.

For more information on how you can help with the conversion process, please visit thegrandcinema.com.

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