Do or Die

Independent movie theaters fight to survive amidst changing times

The building’s facade is shaped like a crown in this one-horse-town. The crown jewel is a neon red and green sign that reads “Roxy.” 

The Roxy Theater was built in 1951 in Newport, Wash. It’s made of a rudimentary cobbling of stucco and rock, but inside, ornate gold and burgundy curtains hang like royal tapestries.

In the front lobby is a glass display box. Inside is what looks like a grandiose telescope to the stars. And for the small town of Newport — it was.

The machine, a 1934 Simplex 35mm film projector, is now an archaic mass of reels, bulbs and metal, but for the past 61 years, the machine brought movie stars like Fred Astair to the rural community of loggers and miners.

For more than 100 years, movies have been filmed and viewed on 35mm celluloid film, but the familiar clicky clack of spools and levers and the green and black ink from 150-pound reels of film will soon be extinct.

Studios like Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount have announced they will no longer release 35mm film prints. The movie industry is going entirely digital, and while directors like Christopher Nolan have made public protests against the transition — The Dark Knight Rises was made on celluloid — the change, analysts and theater owners say, is inevitable.

This means that movie theaters across the country like the Roxy Theater are faced with the decision to adapt to changing technology or die.

Hollywood studios aim to save billions with digital technology.

It costs a studio approximately $1,500 to print one copy of a movie on 35mm film and ship it to theaters across the county in heavy metal canisters about the size of a small pizza.

Multiply $1,500 by 4,000 or so copies— one print for each screen across the country — and the millions of dollars add up. By comparison, a digital copy — one terabyte stored on a hard drive — costs a studio approximately $150 per film.

Twentieth Century Fox was the first major Hollywood studio to officially notify theater owners that it will distribute all movies in a digital format within the next two years. Insiders, like John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, argue over the exact year, but predict that projecting on film will be obsolete by 2015.

Fithian and other analysts fear the timeline will put hundreds of small theaters out of business.

“Simply put,” Fithian said to a desperate crowd at the association’s 2011 annual convention. “If you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.”

The lobby of the Roxy Theater was once painted aqua marine. Inside, four murals painted on sparkly canvas depict palm trees and blue lagoons. It was hand built by a father-and-son duo who owned four movie theaters in Pend Oreille County and one in Priest River.

Kevin Wright, an insurance agent in Newport, purchased the theater in 2007. He declined to say how much he paid for the space, but according to the Pend Oreille County Assessor’s Office, the Roxy Theater was appraised in 2011 at $325,811.

“I didn’t anticipate digital coming for about 10 years,” Wright says. “But then a year ago in June we got the notification about the digital transition from the National Association of Theater Owners. I kicked it into gear after that, and I’ve had a lump in my throat ever since.”

Wright says in order to stay open he had to transform the Roxy Theater from a second-run theater with one screen, to a first-run theater with three screens.

But banks, including the local bank that carries his current loan — refused to lend any money. Eventually, he received three Rural Opportunities Loan Funds with the Tri-County Economic Development District totaling $250,000.

Other local theaters are faced with similar circumstances.

Behind the scenes at the Magic Lantern theater in downtown Spokane is a red old-fashioned popcorn machine. Aaron Spickelmire, projectionist and theater manager at the Magic Lantern, uses it as a toolbox.

“On a business end the transition makes sense, but as a result independent theaters are being hit the hardest,” says Spickelmire. “We’re kinda stuck right now. Digital is around the corner but we barely have enough money to stay open let alone update.”

Spickelmire says if the theater cannot raise funds for a digital projector, it will close.

The transition isn’t as bleak at the Garland Theater, which opened in 1945. Dena Carr, director of operations at the Garland, says the theater will make the digital transition at the beginning of 2013.

“It’s a significant investment for a single-screen theater and closing was definitely on the table,” she says. “Fortunately, in the end, it wasn’t really an option to close.”

Carr says the transition is possible through careful budgeting. She says they anticipate spending between $65,000 and $85,000 on a digital projector.

She says the transition could have been easier financially if the theater qualified for a Virtual Print Fee — a non-disclosure financial incentive paid by studios to help movie theaters purchase digital equipment. Virtual Print Fees are primarily given to first-run theaters with multiple screens.

“We didn’t qualify because we are not a first-run theater,” Carr says. “The studios don’t really stand to make a whole of lot money off us so they are not motivated to help, which is unfortunate because we are the little guy. We could probably stand to benefit the most.”

The Panida Theater, in Sandpoint, Idaho and Kenworthy Theater in Moscow, Idaho also didn’t qualify for Virtual Print Fees. Erik Daarstad, chairman of the board at the Panida Theater, says the Roxy Theater did, indeed, qualify for the fees. Wright, however, declined to comment on the subject.

So far, the Panida Theater has raised approximately $20,000 through donations and fundraising events. Daarstad says the theater plans to convert within the next year.

“There are less than 300 single-screen movie theaters like the Panida left in the U.S., and for all these theaters, the conversion is a tremendous financial challenge,” Daarstad says, who is hoping to raise about $75,000 for the new projector.

The Kenworthy’s Executive Director Christine Cavanaugh says the impending news came as a shock and that the theater plans to raise $70,000-$100,000 for a digital projector through community fundraising campaigns and possibly a loan.

The Roxy Theater closed two months for renovations and reopened in May boasting three new digital projectors that can be con trolled on a cellphone.

The once open auditorium now features a labyrinth of hallways and three theaters — one 200-seat theater and two smaller viewing rooms with 65 seats each. The lobby is no longer aqua marine; it now looks like an old soda shop with chrome and cherry red accents.

Overall, Wright says the community has been supportive of the transformation. Ticket sales have increased by 25 percent. He hopes to raise that number to 60 percent.

“We are still the little guy,” he says.

“We are an anchor in this community, but we need community support, all of us little theaters do, otherwise we won’t survive.”

Roxy Theater • Open daily • $6-$8 • 118 S. Washington St., Newport, Wash. • • (509) 447-4125

Hadestown @ First Interstate Center for the Arts

Tue., July 5, 7:30 p.m., Wed., July 6, 7:30 p.m., Thu., July 7, 7:30 p.m., Fri., July 8, 7:30 p.m., Sat., July 9, 2 & 7:30 p.m. and Sun., July 10, 1 & 6:30 p.m.
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