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by Anthony Kaufman
March 7, 2013 10:04 AM
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From Yellow Springs, Ohio to Los Angeles: Three Ways Small Arthouses are Saving Up for the Digital Transition



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.

A still from the Downing Film Center's Drive to Digital campaign video.
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."

Celebrity Endorsements

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.

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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.

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.
"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."

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3 Comments

  • rachel goodstein | September 16, 2013 10:55 PMReply

    I've spent my summer vacation as the volunteer spearhead of the kickstarter sixty day campaign to save the 76 year old, historic, restored Rogers City Theater in Rogers City, Michigan on the shores of Lake Huron. (This theater was built by the same man who opened the first theater in Rogers City in 1912.)

    Rogers City is most famous for being the site of the world's largest open quarry limestone quarry. It also opened in 1912 and is currently six miles square and 250 feet deep. Much of the limestone mined is used in steelmaking but some of makes its way into processing food like Doritos and other uses. I imagine many of the towns that will lose theaters produce necessities that the Hollywood types consume every day like food.

    This go digital or go dark scenario seems natural for two things: a little guys vs big guys movie and some kinda law suit.

    As of today 400 backers have pledged $84,360 toward the $100,00 goal. Our deadline is September 28, 2013 at 10AM. To anyone/everyone reading this please pledge and use your social media network to send our story and link to those people who might help.

    Thanks.

  • Audrey Ewell | March 7, 2013 12:22 PMReply

    I know several of these theaters and the people who run them and have total respect for what they're doing. My and many other's films have shown in their theaters when they wouldn't have shown elsewhere in town (at the multiplexes and malls), allowing those films to reach their audiences in lovely indie theaters. There are so many of us now who have distributed our films ourselves or who were (or are now) involved enough in the process to know these theaters and owners and managers, and I for one would have happily sent a letter to my fans in Boston, for instance, if Ned had asked me to help get the word out about their fundraising campaign. I did that recently on behalf of Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, who I will always have a deep fondness for after treating us in such a wonderful way when we brought our last film there. And there are many others I know and love, and I am just one filmmaker. I hope indie theaters will not forget who their biggest fans often are, nor that we have fans, and we (I at least, and surely others) would say yes if asked to help spread th word about fundraising campaigns. It takes me two seconds to post something on my film's seattle or chicago fan pages, etc., and it's something I'd happily do - but I work crazy hours so I just need to be asked, to have it put to me, and then I'm more than happy to. I bet a lot of other filmmakers feel that way, and would be happy to help these theaters we love in whatever way we can.

  • Sandra Thomas | March 7, 2013 10:43 AMReply

    It's heartwarming to see communities rally around their independent cinemas. We had the same experience in Williamstown, MA at Images Cinema, a single-screen art house on the main drag since 1916. With the community's support and a few grants we converted in late November. Since then we've seen an increase in membership and the viewing experience has improved dramatically.