The Silent Movie Theatre, home of Cinefamily
Flickr User Andy Sternberg The Silent Movie Theatre, home of Cinefamily

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."

Community Support

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.

The website of the Davis Theatre in Higginsville, Missouri

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.