By DAVID GREEN
Morenci’s historic Rex Theatre has survived many changes since its opening in 1916 as the Gem Theatre.
Talking pictures came along in the 1920s, and as the black and white television began to appear in more and more homes in the 1950s, movies were produced in color in hopes of luring viewers back to the theater.
In the 1980s, theater owners faced competition from the widespread use of the tape cassette as viewers rented a movie and watched it at home with a VCR and television.
Then came cable television and the DVD, followed by rental services such as Netflix. Movie watchers had one more reason to stay at home during the past decade with the advent of video streaming direct to home computers, televisions and smart phones.
What some call the biggest change since the invention of the “talkie” movie is well underway and this is the one that will pull the plug on the two large projectors at Morenci’s Rex Theatre.
Smaller theaters across the country are expected to go out of business when the movie industry converts production entirely to digital. The word “film” will likely stay—after all, people still “dial” a telephone number—but 35 millimeter celluloid will become a relic from the past.
When will the digital switch occur?
“There’s a lot of conjecture,” said Rex owner Mike Gregerson of Manchester. “It’s accelerated a lot faster than expected.”
Reports that 2012 is the final year for film just aren’t true, he said, but the change is coming.
“Eventually the Rex will close,” Gregerson said.
He knows of fund-raising efforts underway in some cities in an effort to save old, independently owned theaters, but it’s no small undertaking.
The conversion to digital costs about $65,000—and much more for 3D capabilities—and Gregerson isn’t so sure that additional money wouldn’t be needed a few years down the road. A standard film projector can operate for 20 or 30 years and still be usable, but what about a digital projector?
“Essentially what we’re talking about is a computer,” Gregerson said, and no one operates a computer for 20 years. “How often will it need an upgrade?”
Reels and reels
Gregerson’s movies arrive by UPS delivery to his workplace. A typical movie takes up five or six reels packed in a heavy-duty box.
Each reel contains about 2,000 feet of film and represents about 20 minutes of the movie. Before the show begins, Gregerson combines film from the smaller reels onto a larger one—three per reel for an hour of show time. With two projectors, a movie up to two hours is ready for viewing.
Observant movie-goers may notice a dot that appears at the top right of the movie screen about an hour into the film. That’s the projectionist’s cue to turn on the second projector and watch for another dot.
When the next dot appears, the operator turns the switch to put the second projector into action and turns off the other projector.
There was a time about 10 years ago when distributors tried sending only the two large reels, Gregerson said, but they proved too unwieldy.
With digital movies, the 30 to 40 pound box of reels disappears and theaters receive delivery of a hard drive to connect to the projector. Even that method is old-fashioned for some theaters. At a few locations, data is pulled in via a satellite dish.
The changeover to digital will save studios an enormous sum of money. Gregerson read that each print of a movie—and hundreds of prints are made for distribution across the country—costs up to $2,000. Digital production costs less than $250.
Many larger theaters are involved in a program that helps pay for digital conversion through a rebate. The distributor is passing on some of its savings to theater owners. Skye Cinema in Wauseon is taking advantage of that, reported co-owner Mindy Gleckler. All of its projectors were converted to digital last November.
Many of the larger multiplexes are already using digital projectors and the effect on the small theaters is obvious.
Until recently there were two distributors for films, Gregerson said, but that’s dropped to just one. Deluxe Entertainment had a depot near Detroit’s Metro Airport and he often drove there to pick up a print. Last year Deluxe subcontracted its 35mm film distribution to Technicolor, and Technicolor turned its film print making over to Deluxe.
As digital gains in popularity, there are fewer 35mm films for theaters to share.
“It’s a challenge for smaller theaters,” Gregerson said. “The availability of films is much reduced, especially in the last year.”
Where in the past there might have been 200 prints for theaters to share for distribution in the state, now there might be only 40. Theaters with film projectors are now vying for a limited number of prints.
Where the Rex used to wait three to four weeks for its turn to show a new release, now it often takes seven to eight weeks.
“There’s lot of discussion about how important smaller theaters are to distributors,” Gregerson said.
He’s read that 50 percent of the U.S. screens now use digital projection, but that accounts for 80 percent of the distributor’s revenue.
World-wide distribution is also a concern. After the first-run showings in the U.S., films are sent to other areas such as South America where digital is rare other than in big cities.
“There’s a question of whether there will always be a limited number of film copies available,” Gregerson said. “There’s a lot of discussion.”
None of the studios have said that film production will end, but he figures eventually one studio will make the announcement and the others will follow.
Even if there are a few 35mm copies, the change will bring an end to the small-town movie theater.
“It’s kind of a waiting game,” Gregerson said. “For the next two or three years prints will be available. After that, all bets are off. Eventually it will end.”
On some Saturday night in the future, Morenci is likely to have its own “last picture show.”
IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service reports that:
2004: film projectors were in 99% of theaters
2012: 37% by the end of the year