E-readers killed the book shops and the MP3 murdered record stores. Will digital format be the death of independent theaters?
The Kansas City Star
As the movie industry phases out 35 mm film and switches entirely to digital production, boutique theaters and indie multiplexes are struggling to make the costly upgrade. Theaters that arent digitized wont show new movies. No summer blockbusters, no cool 3-D visuals. Sadly, even a lot of old classics arent available in the old format anymore.
A lot of big chains have deals with the movie studios that will help cover conversion costs. Not the independents. Theyre on their own, and the costs are deep into the thousands.
At my favorite neighborhood movie house, Screenland Armour, two new projectors with new sound systems are going to cost nearly $110,000. The owner-operators, Adam Roberts and Brent Miller, are doing all they can to keep the gold man rolling back the curtains at the historic 1928 theater in North Kansas City.
The two went into business with Screenland owner Butch Rigby six months ago and have no intention of turning off the lights.
Were fortunate to have one of the coolest, oldest and most historic theaters in the city, says Adam, 26. We want people to know we are here, alive and kicking, and still want to be in the foreseeable future.
But how are they going to pull it off?
Theyve taken the first steps and secured a loan. But they need a little help to ensure they can keep up with costs. So they took the Kickstarter route of fundraising to reach a $20,000 goal. They have until April 6 to get the money.
Backers get gifts: $10 earns you a large soda and large popcorn; $25 gets you that plus two movies tickets and a second of actual 35 mm film. Adams favorite is the $75 donation that provides Big Brothers and Big Sisters a movie date with their little one: two tickets, two sodas, two popcorns, two boxes of candy and one second of 35 mm film each. There are bigger prizes, too. For $250, you can name a seat. $5,000 lets you name the large auditorium.
Screenland Armour isnt the only local independent to face this battle. The Tivoli Cinemas invested in one digital projector to show HD broadcasts. The Boulevard Drive-In added digital projection last year, and most of the Fine Arts Theatres made the switch before that.
But others havent been so lucky. Last year in Higginsville, about 50 miles east of Kansas City, the historic downtown theater shut down when its owners couldnt raise enough for new equipment.
And even the megaplex chain Dickinson Theatres Inc. isnt immune. The KC-based company filed for bankruptcy last year, citing in part the costs of digital upgrades.
Adam says the Screenland Armour isnt just committed to going digital. They want to have the premier adult movie going experience in the metro. Already, the two have redecorated the lobby with modern TVs and younger art, expanded the dinner menu and upped the variety of craft beers.
They know they cant compete with the AMCs and the like. But a boutique theater isnt about dozens of screens and popcorn flicks. Smaller theaters have more fun.
They have monthly Sunday brunch specials that include breakfast and a showing of a classic like Ferris Buellers Day Off. They host trivia night, show football games during NFL season, have watch parties for Mad Men and The Walking Dead and even host stand-up comedians.
And yes, they screen first-run movies. Right next to an action hit like A Good Day to Die Hard is an Oscar standout in Silver Linings Playbook.
My favorite part about the theater at 408 Armour Road is that they make their own rules.
One summer I found myself there for a 1:15 showing of Friends With Benefits with a friend in town from Atlanta. There was a mix-up. The actual showing was 3:15. Instead of turning us away, the woman put on a screening for two.
There we sat in plush red recliners eating delicious fried green beans watching a movie just for us. Thats the beauty of independents. Customer service is bar none.
Dana Collins, a Kansas City movie buff, loves the theater so much she and a friend are hosting their 30th birthday there on Saturday with a double feature Monster Squad and The Goonies.
The Screenland movie-going experience is like none other, she says. They manage to capture the nostalgia of a time long forgotten and bring it into the new era that you cant replicate at the big chain cineplexes.
She doesnt want to see it bite the digital dust. Me neither.
Weve lost a lot of bookstores. Record stores are a rare find. Where does it end? We cant let the screens go dark on Armour.