By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire March 7, 2013 at 10:4AM
Who says independent theaters are dying?
Last week, Boston's Brattle Theatre, a 60-year-old rep house, raised nearly $150,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to buy a digital projector and update its AC system. In January, Los Angeles' CineFamily received $158,541 to move to digital and do crucial repairs and renovations. And last fall, the Catlow, a historic arthouse in Barrington, Illinois, met its $100,000 Kickstarter goal in a single week, eventually reaping $175,395 by the end of its campaign.
Even Michael Hurley, the author of the much discussed Indiewire editorial, "We're About to Lose 1,000 Small Theaters That Can't Convert to Digital. Does It Matter?," admitted, "It's been painful, but I think we'll get past it."
As large and small distributors phase out 35mm prints, the Maine-based Hurley has converted Belfast's Colonial Theatre to digital; he plans to make the change at another theater, The Temple, as well.
For the Colonial, Hurley raised money through a combination of local fundraising and the industry's Virtual Print Fee—a rental fee paid to theaters by distributors, and according to Hurley, no longer an option for most indie theaters. For The Temple, which rests in a small town on the border of the Canadian providence of New Brunswick, Hurley has another plan: "I've got a parking lot I'm trying to sell there. And I'm planning to take the two screens into a four-screen theater. Hopefully, the four screens can cover the expense."
For Hurley and others like him, digital changeover may be difficult, but it's also functioning as a Darwinian test of viability. As Hurley says, "All theater owners need to ask themselves: Do they want to be in the movie business? And if they can't make the transition to digital work, they can't be in the movie business."
For most theaters looking to endure in the digital age, community support has been the number-one factor in determining their survival. The aforementioned Kickstarter campaigns would never have been successful had those venues not had a strong foothold within their communities.
LA venue CineFamily's cofounder Hadrian Belove likens their process of cultivating an audience to "gardening," he says. "It's always a lot of work and you're constantly tending it," he says. "We've spent a lot of energy building a community, building on the nonprofit principle that you're there to give."
The Brattle's Ned Hinkle laments the fact that theaters were forced to go digital, but he acknowledges there has been one "great side effect," he says. "It's a wonderful thing for communities to realize that they can have an investment in these places. Whether they feel like they're part of something by giving $20 or joining the board, more people are realizing the value of these smaller theaters, and the fact that they can be involved."
Brattle and CineFamily have the privileged position of being located in major cities, with large audience bases and potential donors from which to draw. But even in smaller towns and cities around the country, theater owners say locals have come out to support them.
In Higginsville, Missouri (pop. 4,774), about an hour from Kansas City, citizens created the Friends of the Davis Theater to save the community's aging art-deco theater, holding Halloween fundraisers, a "Popcorn Run" motorcycle and car race, and entering a Reader's Digest contest that netted $25,000. "I think people got involved because they didn't want to see that tradition of the small-town theater lost," says local resident Tabitha Reeves, who helped with the campaign.
Their actions raised a total of $50,000 -- far below what was necessary to make the updates; the Davis has been momentarily shut down. However, owners Fran and George Schwarzer are taking out a loan and are hoping to install digital equipment, "if everything falls into place," says Fran, with plans to reopen in May.
A Personal Experience
Whether historic buildings like The Davis or The Catlow or one-of-a-kind programming—from CineFamily's crazy Lost and Found archival 16mm nights, with grilled cheese sandwiches, to other theaters' documentaries and foreign films that are unavailable anywhere else, it's those venues that distinguish themselves from the nearby multiplexes that are getting a boost.
The Downing Film Center, located in New York's Hudson Valley, has reached over $50,000 in its "Drive to Digital" campaign, thanks in part to its unique setting: a single-screen venue with 50 reclining chairs. "It's like a cozy screening room," says Downing Film Center president Kevin M. Burke, who runs the theater with his parents, Brian and Sharon Burke.
As part of their campaign, they sent out emails, invested in a 2-minute trailer that played before each screening, and bought a digital projector even before raising the money, with two loans. "It showed to the community that we were serious and they could see the results. And I think that sped up the donations," says Burke.
"And people want to continue to see those unique films like 'Searching for Sugar Man' or 'Amour,'" adds Burke. "And it's a family-run nonprofit: my parents sells tickets and do concessions, so there's face to face trust."
Similarly, the 40-year-old Upstate Theatre in nearby Rhinebeck, has raised roughly $160,000, thanks to its longstanding presence, a healthy amount of local and family foundations, and its soft pitch, according to founder Steve Leiber.
"We don't have onscreen advertising, so before each film, we go up in front of the audience and we lay it out to them. Here's the story: the distributors are saying we need digital projectors, so hopefully you value this place, and if you can make a contribution it really helps," he says. A couple days after such a plea, "a guy from Woodstock gave me a personal check for $10,000," adds Leiber.
Likewise, the owners of the Cable Car Cinema and Café in Providence, Rhode Island, which is currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to go digital, say their outreach with local organizations and film festivals has given them a strong presence in the community. "What we have discovered is that people know us and our staff and there's a level of intimacy," says Daniel Kamil. "It’s a public place that people feel good in."
"Obviously there's this question: what is the relevance of cinema when you can bit torrent anything at any time?" adds Kamil. "But people still want to go out and they want to be part of the community. And that's what we can offer them."
CineFamily, famously, managed to get into the good graces of star Robert Downey, Jr., who has pledged to pay for the theater's digital projector. (They have not yet received it, but Downey's people are currently looking at quotes supplied to them by Belove.) While Belove says the celebrity component is overstated, he does admit their "Telethon" in the middle of their Kickstarter campaign was a huge boost.
"The Telethon propped up the middle of our campaign," he explains, so instead of just receiving fundraising bumps at the beginning and end of their campaign, which is the standard, they also saw a surge in the middle.
Similarly, during the Brattle's Kickstarter campaign, famed author Neil Gaiman and performance artist Amanda Palmer, who are presenting films at the theater this May, offered to give four $1,000 donors a private screening and evening. The perk sold out.
Ohio's Little Art Theatre (in Yellow Springs, pop. 3,516) held its first fundraiser in June 2010 with an event called "Clooney At The Movies." But it wasn't that Clooney: It was his dad, author Nick Clooney ("The Movies That Changed Us: Reflections on the Screen"), who spoke to donors as part of a silent and live auction. "It was a great success," says Little Art Theatre executive director Jenny Cowperthwaite, who notes that the event allowed them to balance the budget for that year, and just as importantly, "lay away three months reserve."
In January of last year, the venue embarked on an ambitious $475,000 capital campaign, which they eventually achieved with the help of foundation support as well as trustee and community donations. This spring, the Little Art will be completely renovated.
Now that many art-house theaters have successfully fundraised their way into the 21st century, they still hold worries about the future of their newly digitized business. While most theater owners say picture and sound quality are improved (no scratched prints, no projection "bounce") and operations may be easier with the new digital systems (no shipping containers, projection with the press of a button), many theater owners have a healthy dose of skepticism towards their new technology.
"When you compare digital vs. 35mm, in terms of reliability, staying power and ease of use, 35mm wins," says The Brattle's Hinkle. "Film works, and if there's a problem, you can take it and tape it back together. When a digital file doesn’t work, it just doesn't work."
Theater owners are also concerned that the equipment they've recently taken great pains to buy will be obsolete in a couple of years. "It's like buying a computer," says Leiber. "And then [the companies] say, 'We don't support that system anymore, and you need the new software.'"
Many cheaper digital projectors have 2K resolution, but a lot of films are being produced in 4K. "If it ever becomes an issue, the projectors should be upgradeable to 4K," says Hinkle. "But what's the cost of that? I don't know."
Other theater-owners are feeling ever more bitter toward the digital shift. "I resent it and the hell it's putting people through," says the Railroad's Eisen. "And worst of all, for an inferior product that will undoubtedly be relatively short-lived as well."