Switch from film to digital tougher for small theaters

ARLINGTON — Hollywood says it’s time to put away the 35 mm film projector, with all of its expensive headaches, and go digital.

For most movie theater owners, the change hasn’t posed a problem. However, in Arlington, the 74-year-old single-screen Olympic Theatre doesn’t yet have the resources to make it into the 21st century.

William Frankhouser, who heads up an organization called Save the Olympic Theatre, has helped theater owner Norma Pappas set up an online fundraiser. The goal is $30,000 by the end of February.

“We got $1,700 in the first 24 hours of the fundraiser, so we have hope,” Frankhouser said. “It’s an ambitious goal, but we have good community backing and interest. We are looking for people to run fundraisers, too.”

The Save the Olympic Theatre group also has applied for help from Save America’s Cinemas, a nonprofit fundraising group dedicated to providing the financial assistance required to acquire the necessary digital equipment needed for about 3,000 small-town cinemas and theaters in country.

Meanwhile, in Stanwood, the company Far Away Entertainment has installed five new digital systems in the Stanwood Cinemas.

Far Away owns eight multi-screen theaters, including those in Oak Harbor, Anacortes, Bainbridge Island, Bremerton, Ocean Shores and West Seattle. It was easy for the independent movie theater chain to make the switch, said Jeff Brein, managing partner of Far Away Entertainment.

Because digital systems save film studios a lot of money, movie exhibitors can get a stipend from the studios for each movie shown. The money goes to help pay for the digital projectors. The stipend pays enough for multi-screen theaters to make payments on new digital systems, but it’s not enough money for single-screen exhibitors, Brein said.

“If you show 100 movies a year, it pays off. But if you only show a dozen first-run movies a year, the math doesn’t make sense,” Brein said. “So the options for theaters such as the Olympic are to get traditional financing for the new digital equipment, continue to show 35 mm film as long as it is available, go to the community to ask for help or go out of business.”

People in Arlington don’t want that to happen, Frankhouser said. The Olympic is an important draw to downtown. Pappas has said she is grateful for the concern and the help from Save the Olympic Theatre.

Pappas isn’t interested in turning the Olympic over to a nonprofit, because she hopes someday to sell the theater business and retire. In Concrete and Port Townsend, movie-goers successfully donated money to the owners of private theaters to help them get the digital equipment. The owners of the Blue Fox Drive-In Theater near Oak Harbor have made the switch to digital, but they are still fundraising to pay for it.

That’s the goal in Arlington, Frankhouser said.

“Even if we only raise $10,000, then Norma has some capital to work with,” he said. “And it’s possible that the cost of the digital projectors will come down and she can continue to show movies.”

Pappas already is getting notices that many new movies won’t be available on film this year and that the studios won’t ship film to her, Frankhouser said.

“Norma’s situation is a real tragedy. If she is able to convert, life will be easier for her. No more slicing film and other messy tasks,” Brein said. “There is a plethora of new opportunities out there, too, including being able to show live concerts and sporting events. People who see movies in Stanwood are sure to notice the difference in quality, presentation and sound because of our new digital systems.”

Along with the Olympic Theatre, Brein wonders about small moviehouses in rural areas of many western states, where multi-plexes don’t exist.

“I would hope that the studios and theater owner associations can find solutions for the independent theaters and drive-ins,” Brein said. “If we start losing all those little theaters, it will be a piece of American culture that you will never recover.”

Help the Olympic

To donate to help the Olympic Theatre buy a digital projector and keep showing first-run movies, go to www.indiegogo.com/savetheolympictheatre. The next meeting of Save the Olympic Theatre is at 8 a.m. Feb. 2 at the Local Scoop restaurant, 434 N. Olympic Ave. The Olympic Theatre is located at 107 N. Olympic Ave. The Stanwood Cinemas are located at 6996 265th St. NW.

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gifege@heraldnet.com.

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