Independent theaters feel pressure

Olympia Film Society among those raising money for new digital equipment

Staff writerDecember 12, 2012 

You can’t kill the flicker. The flicker will live on.

The flicker is the visual signature of a 35mm film projector, the industry standard for decades and the drug of choice for film fanatics. It’s slowly disappearing, pushed into irrelevance by digital projection systems favored by major film studios.

Zero hour will arrive next year, when studios cease to provide old-standard film prints to movie houses around the country.

Independent theaters from Tacoma to Olympia are racing that clock, adopting a common motto: Go digital or go dark. The Grand Cinema and the Blue Mouse in Tacoma, the Olympia Film Society and the Roxy in downtown Eatonville – all face the same choice.

“It’s all of us little guys,” said Susan Evans, manager of the Blue Mouse. “I’m sad for everybody.”

The conversion presents no problem for suburban multiplexes and theater chains; virtually all of them have switched already, replacing film projectors with their digital counterparts.

It’s not so easy for the independent operators. Digital projectors cost big money – $75,000 or more. Around the country, some theaters are shutting down, unable to bear the cost.

Others, such as the Grand and the Blue Mouse, are raising money to fund the conversion. The Grand, which runs four screens, is aiming for $344,000, relying largely on contributions from its members, said executive director Philip Cowan, who said the effort is on track.

“We’re writing for grants and then going to our membership for donations, and then every time somebody sees a movie at the Grand, they’re seeing a trailer that we have on our website,” Cowan said. “Our goal is to install by next fall.”

In Olympia, the Film Society runs a single screen at the Capitol Theater downtown, often inviting prominent directors for discussions. Last month, director Philip Kaufman presented his 1983 epic, “The Right Stuff,” which chronicles the early days of the U.S. space program.

The society aims to raise $80,000 for the digital conversion, wrapped into a longer-term fund-raising effort to spruce up the 90-year-old building, said executive director Thom Mayes.

“We not only need to convert but we need to make some serious capital upgrades to the building,” he said.

That effort – with a target of $400,000 – will pay for new theater seats, better rest rooms and safety improvements.

The Blue Mouse started raising money online last month, aiming at a $75,000 target. As of Tuesday, donations stood at $43,655 – 58 percent of the money needed, with slightly more than a month to go.

“We have had a wonderful outpouring,” said Evans, the manager and lone projectionist for the 89-year-old theater in Tacoma’s Proctor neighborhood. “For me it’s been very emotional to watch, because I’ve worked for months to put this campaign together.”

In Eatonville, Michael Wood, co-owner of the Roxy, built in 1942, hopes to raise money through online and private sources, but progress has been slow – about $5,500 so far.

The independent houses are stuck with raising money on their own, chiefly because they pick their own films rather than following the dictates of major studios. The multiplexes don’t face that challenge; the studios underwrite the cost of conversion.

“Their assistance is kind of assistance with strings,” Cowan said. “More or less it comes back to them giving you kickbacks for you carrying their films.”

The Grand and the Film Society don’t work that way: both houses tend to feature art-house films and vintage classics that don’t find their way to the suburbs. Sometimes it’s first-run stuff (the Grand is currently showing Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” along with “Anna Karenina”), but filmgoers are just as likely to see the unexpected, such as a series of classic martial arts movies or a screening of “The Maltese Falcon.”

The Grand and the Film Society won’t give up on 35mm – both houses will preserve their ability to show vintage prints on film in special cases. But for the most part, films no longer will arrive in 90-pound canisters; instead, they’ll come in five-pound cartridges, about the size of a bulky paperback book.

“I do worry that 10 years from now, that we might have to go through something like this again,” Cowan said.

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