February 2, 2013

Small Maine theaters making costly, necessary switch to digital projection equipment

Pittsfield Community Theater raising funds for equipment; Waterville's Railroad Square Cinema to upgrade three screens in coming months; Strand Theater in Skowhegan plans April changeover; Narrow Gauge Cinema in Farmington has converted 2 of 7 screens

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

PITTSFIELD -- On a quiet afternoon here, Bill Lashon is sweeping the aisles between the red velvet chairs in the 262-seat community movie theater.

click image to enlarge

Bill Lashon winds 35 mm film manually in the projection booth at the Pittsfield Community Theatre on Main Street Thursday. The movie industry is shifting from the 35 mm film to digital by the end of the year.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Bill Lashon, the sole projectionist at the Pittsfield Community Theatre on Main Street, stands in the projection booth Thursday. Lashon's job may be in the balance with the movie industry shifting from 35 mm film to digital by the end of the year.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Additional Photos Below

Upstairs in a dimly lit room overlooking the cinema, he nimbly splices together six rolls of 35 mm film comprising the movie "Argo," which was shown last week on the single-screen stage.

A self-taught projectionist, Lashon, 48, has gotten down the art of converting shipping reels into projection reels, a process that he says takes about an hour to an hour and a half and that must be done every week when the cinema gets a new movie.

The reels the theater receives from film distributors usually contain 18 to 20 minutes of film and must be cut and spliced together into a single reel. Then they are fed through something called a platter and into the projector, which faces the white screen on the theater's stage.

About three-quarters of cinemas nationwide have converted from 35 mm film to digital projection because of film distributors' decision to stop producing the 35 mm reels, according to Juliet Goodfriend, the executive director of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute in Bryn Mawr, Penn.

"Among art house and community theaters, I'd say that number is more like one-third. Unfortunately, this can be a terrible challenge for smaller theaters, and there are many that won't make it," she said.

Goodfriend said there's no set date for when 35 mm film will become obsolete, but most major distributors have said they won't produce it after the end of this year, she said.

"Theaters really don't have a choice if they want to show current films, because at some point those films won't be produced on 35 mm reels. They are definitely going to need to convert," said Shannon Haines, the Executive Director of the Maine Film Center in Waterville.

Goodfriend said the cost of buying and installing a digital projector can range from $35,000 to $150,000 for a single screen, depending on the size of the screen and whether the theater needs to update other equipment, such as its sound system, to make it compatible with the new technology.

For smaller theaters such as the Pittsfield Community Theater, which has been fundraising for the last five years to buy digital projection equipment along with completing other renovations to the theater, it can be a struggle.

"I think its hard, and a lot of single-screen theaters in the state are already struggling to survive. We're counting on the people in the town wanting the theater and being willing to keep us here," Lashon said.

At the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, which is owned by the Maine Film Center, Haines said the theater plans to convert all three of its screens to digital within the next few months, although it probably will keep the capacity to show 35 mm films on at least one screen, she said.

Elsewhere in the area, the Strand Theater in Skowhegan plans to convert its three screens to digital projection in April, while the Narrow Gauge Cinema in Farmington has converted two of seven screens, according to John Moore, who owns both theaters.

Moore said the advantages of digital film are mostly for distributors, who will save money on shipping and storage costs, although it might be easier to preserve the quality of film with the new technology.

"No matter how good it is to start, the 35 mm film degrades over time and gets scratched. The beauty of digital is you don't have that," he said.

For audiences, the conversion could explain a slight increase in admission costs, said Ken Eisen, film programmer at the Maine Film Center. Eisen said Railroad Square doesn't plan to raise its admission prices to cover the cost of new digital equipment, but he understands why some theaters might.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Bill Lashon sweeps the floor of the Pittsfield Community Theatre on Main Street Thursday. Lashon is the projectionist at the theatre, which still plays movies in 35 mm format. The movie industry will be distributing their films in all digital format by the end of the year making the 35mm projection theatres obsolete.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans


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