Local Theaters Face Tough Times as 35 mm Faces Extinction

In a now post-analog, technology-driven world, many industries are struggling to keep up; some have gone by the wayside entirely (Polaroid pictures, anyone?). Many remember when we still loaded film into cameras, but children now might be baffled at the sight.

Kodak is arguably the best in illustrating the grand evolution of reality-capturing technology, spanning over more than a century – with the last 20 years being some of its most turbulent due to the digital revolution. A similar change is underway within the movie industry, but has been much slower because it is much more costly.

Although it is no new topic, it’s still having a major impact as movie companies are imposing a “digital mandate” on smaller theaters that still utilize 35 mm film and accompanying film equipment on a regular basis.

Those particular historical theaters, many of which have been in use as an entertainment hub since the early part of the 20th century, are small and locally owned with few screens – but are a historical staple to their respective towns in which they dwell. These cinemas offer much cheaper prices than their mega-plex counterparts and have that nostalgic feel that many in the community cherish.

The plan is to end production of 35 mm film in the United States by the end of 2013, with worldwide distribution ending in 2015. Currently, only about 10 percent of theaters have yet to convert to digital.

“By end of 2015, 35 mm [film] will no longer exist in cinemas and that’ll be the end of that,” said David Hancock, head of film and cinema at IHS Screen Digest, in an article published on screendaily.com.

While most would happily welcome the new, clearer, easily-transportable format, the price tag is what is making shutting down look more promising.

For new digital equipment, these small theaters are being asked to fork up anywhere between $40,000 and $100,000 per screen.

“It’s a tough bullet to bite when you’re operating on a $6 ticket price,” said Ernie Renninger, co-owner, along with his wife, Nancy, of the Roxy Theatre, Lock Haven.

So where do our local, small, historical theaters stand?

The Ritz Theatre, Muncy

In operation since the early ’20s, The Ritz is a one-screen cinema and is located in the heart of Muncy. It’s really a one-of-a-kind, at least in this area; it arguably is only still functioning due to one very-dedicated man with a big heart for film.

Jay Richards, who is in his 60s, not only runs the ticket booth, but also runs the projectors, concessions and cleans up, but not without the help of a few dedicated volunteers.

Richards doesn’t get paid either; he emphasized that no one gets paid. For people to do it for free, he said, they really have to love the theater.

Like so many in the industry, Richards explained his love of film and theater that began when he was very young.

It’s in the blood, he said, many times over.

“Theater’s just something very magical, ya know?”

For him, the change to digital has been an ongoing battle. With only one screen and a not-so-high profit margin, the demand for upwards of $100,000 seems impossible to meet. Richards has already put up a great deal of his own money to keep the cinema in operation.

The business has been soliciting donations on their website, ritztheatremuncy.com, where a big “Save the Ritz” button resides and links to a letter explaining their financial situation.

Their plan is to become a non-profit organization so that they can apply for grants, but so far, the theater has not reached the goals needed to become one.

“We’re accepting donations and going to try and do fundraisers, hoping to reach the goal before film is over with,” Richards said.

Pike Drive-In, Montgomery

Owner Joe McDade calls running the Pike Drive-In a love affair. On its 60th year in operation, Pike is the only drive-in left in the county. With the decline of drive-in theaters, drive-ins now only make up 1.5 percent of all movie screens.

“We’re lucky, we have a different environment here,” McDade said. He’s referring to the unique experience that drive-ins offer; come with a carload of friends or family, and even pets, and hang out in your car, or outside of it as many do, to watch a double feature for a cheap ticket price. Some people even bring their own couches and air mattresses. Movie-lovers come from all parts of Pennsylvania, and even out of state, to get Pike’s unique cinematic experience. On Saturday, the line to get a ticket was long as the sun was setting and the air still warm. Children were running around the field catching fireflies as they anticipated the start of “Despicable Me” or “Monsters University,” showing on screens one and two.

Drive-ins face a somewhat different battle from normal theaters in the digital conversion; due to the long length from projector to screen, they must buy the best projection equipment.

“It’s about the price of an Escalade,” McDade said. That’s per screen. “The biggest fear is losing a screen,” he said, adding that it’s also tough because drive-ins are a seasonal business.

Pike has started a fundraiser online to which only a few have donated thus far.

Pike Drive-In employees have even given up their tip cup by the register; it has been replaced with a donation bin where proceeds will go to new projection equipment to save the drive-in from closing.

According to McDade, Pike will need to buy at least two projectors for two screens in order to “stay viable” as a theater, but, he said, the up-front costs are very prohibitive.

“Kids five and under are free. We offer cheap entertainment for the whole family. There’s nothing like that anywhere near. I hate to say it, but if we close, I don’t know where I’d tell people to go,” he said.

“Now you got Netflix, Blu-Ray and such, but you can’t get the same experience.”

McDade just got quotes for new projector equipment on Wednesday.

“The good news is that prices have come down since last year, but the bad news is that it’s still expensive,” he said.

Mike Quinn is Pike’s projectionist, who has been there since the late ’80s. He’s also a railroad enthusiast and pet lover (he brings his dogs, Chase and Ryan, with him to work). And he’s not a fan of digital.

“I don’t like digital TV. It pixilates when something goes wrong, back then, if ya lost the TV, ya got snow, now it freezes,” he said.

Currently, Pike’s projection room doesn’t have air conditioning. Quinn sweats profusely as he gets the movies prepared. With the switch to digital, the room would have to be air conditioned – yet another expense.

“Attendance is very good and gets better and better every year,” McDade said. “We’re not gonna give up.”

The Roxy Theatre, Lock Haven

Now the only theater in Clinton County, The Roxy is about the same age as The Ritz, having also been in operation since the early 1920s. Two other screens were added on 1999, thanks to owners Ernie and Nancy Renninger.

The Roxy is definitively going digital.

“It’s probably going to happen at the end of August or the first part of September. I’ve got two different quotes in converting, and I’m analyzing to see which way to go,” Ernie Renninger said. “It’s the only theater in Clinton County and it does well, so there’s no other option than to go digital,” he said. “We’re being forced or we’ll go out of business.”

They’re just debating on whether to add the ability to screen 3-D movies or not, which is an added expense. Already they are looking at a nearly $300,000 expense for the equipment and subsequent renovations.

“Everyone thinks it’s just a fad, we may skip it for now, we can always add it later,” Renninger said.

He doesn’t think the conversion will make any difference in the attendance.

“It will be a better picture and sound, but the quality of the movie is what makes the difference,” he said.

Recently he and his wife enjoyed watching “White House Down” and were planning to see “The Lone Ranger.” He doesn’t particularly care for zombie movies.

Things are looking good for the Roxy.

“Things change; you gotta go with it or close the doors,” Renninger said.

The Campus Theatre, Lewisburg

Built in 1941, The Campus Theatre is one of the lucky few historical theaters that have already endured the conversion to digital.

In 2011, the theater went through a renovation, which was when they were able to convert. They actually were able to keep their 35 mm projector intact, so they can show film also if desired.

“I know how lucky we are … we are one of the few single-screen theatres fortunate enough to be able to make this expensive equipment upgrade and roll into the digital age,” said Ellen Flacker-Darer, Campus Theatre’s executive director.

“As a not-for-profit theater, we would not have been able to make this conversion without amazing support from our community and our outstanding partnership with Bucknell University,” Flacker-Darer said.

A non-profit theater, it boasts of being one of the few remaining single-screen art deco movie houses in the country, and is dedicated to the promotion of the art of cinema.

Overall, futures for these beloved locations are looking mostly bright but somewhat uncertain, too. To help the locations in need, be sure to visit them online or catch a flick and talk to the owner in person.