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

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.

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.

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.