What follows is a guest essay by T. J. Brearton, co-founder of production company ADK MOGUL and a project specialist at the Adirondack Film Society, a partner in the regional Go Digital or Go Dark campaign.
Einstein said that if you want to understand something better, try and explain it to your grandmother. The more I find myself talking about the digital conversion issue which faces independently owned theaters, the more feel like I understand it. But, it’s challenging. The topic is complex, and not black and white. And the rabbit hole, it seems, gets deeper and deeper.
In 2012, the Lake Placid Film Forum hosted a Panel Discussion called “Do Movie Theaters Have a Future?” The answer, I have come to believe in the months since, is a resounding Yes. And the road to success is one that literally takes a village.
Not everyone agrees, however. Some extremists feel that public film exhibition is dying out, like print media or land-line telephones. Many people I’ve talked to don’t believe the issue ought to involve fundraising or community support, they believe that theaters are businesses which should take care of themselves.
This is where the complexity starts, in my experience. A movie theater is a unique business. Most people would agree that going to the movies is not the same as buying something from a store. It’s more akin to an event, like a trip to a museum or a theme park. Often it is accompanied by one or more micro-events, such as going to dinner, doing a little shopping in the neighborhood district, or grabbing a coffee. Going to the movies often includes other businesses besides the theater.
Another opinion I’ve heard advanced is that the theaters ought to have “seen this coming.” Meaning, as a responsible business, a theater owner should have foreseen the conversion to digital and prepared to navigate that switch by budgeting for the new equipment. The theaters may not have seen this coming because there has never been any firm end date put forward; it’s been a vague threat on the horizon for a short while. Unless they had a few hundred thousand dollars lying around or were able to raise that money in that small amount of time, they’re in the lurch. Perhaps the theaters could have raised ticket prices or charged more for concessions?
Right now the average digital projection package costs about $50,000-$70,000. (That’s a lot of five-dollar popcorn.) This level of projection is required by the studios and distributors who hold the rights to the kinds of films small town theaters need to book in order to access a decent audience – especially in tourist-economy communities where out-of-towners expect the same fare they could see at home. Some theaters have two or more screens. They may also be required to retrofit for sound. They may need to make major renovations to accommodate the new projector. And there are all sorts of add-ons and requirements the distributors attach to the projection process. But that’s only where the dominance of the distributor begins.
What I learned from getting more involved in this issue is that a movie theater doesn’t work in remotely the same way as other businesses in terms of peddling its wares. A distributor of a Hollywood film typically gets 70% of the box office on an opening week, leaving the theater owner with 30% of the money folks trade for tickets. Sometimes it’s the first two weeks. It’s only after two or more weeks that the inequitable percentage may drop a little. But by the time the contract allows the theater to claim a majority of the grosses, the film may have been playing for four weeks or more, and by then, most everyone has seen it.
The good news is, a digital conversion can serve a theater which chooses to continue its relationship with its booker and distributor, or it can serve as a tool to liberate the theaters. For the audacious theater owner, digital projection can allow for great latitude in programming, from live sports and artistic events, regional independent films, foreign films, cult favorites, classics, and throwbacks – auditoriums can also be rented for interactive conferences, festivals, parties, and more. The sky is the limit.
But the absence of small theaters in towns like Lake Placid would likely yield to the Hoyts and Regal-Hyatt multiplexes in league with big-box stores. These business tend to set up camp on the edge of a town in anticipation of sprawl, and dredge the downtown district of that community, often leaving it derelict and devoid of character, devastating vital retail business, restaurants, or most anything else. And these multiplexes are likely to show only the “name” films which offer less and less variety as studios make fewer films per year, packing more money into extravaganza franken-movies which run for three hours and play for eight weeks.
The digital conversion issue, I have come to learn, is a David and Goliath story. It is one more manifestation of the tendency towards homogenization of culture, the push towards corporate, global business, and the decay of character-driven, independently owned small business that enrich our communities. By working to help the regional theaters stay open, we help to preserve small business in the community, sustain a unique part of our culture, and help ensure the economic welfare of other businesses that benefit from a nightlife destination.