Film is going digital and that could mean lights out for a theater district anchor. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, more than 90 percent of all theaters in the United States have converted to digital projection systems. Over 3,000 movie theaters may go dark however due to the high costs of conversion, approximately $60-100,000 per screen. Many will be indie theaters, art-houses, and rural and historic movie palaces. They are typically non-profit run or family-owned businesses that lack the cash and resources of big chain cinemas. It may also include the City of Buffalo-owned cinemas in the Market Arcade complex.
The move to digital movies has been in the works for a decade. Two years ago, Twentieth Century Fox was the first major Hollywood studio to say it would stop distributing film prints. By the end of this year, there will be six studios that will use only digital prints for new releases. A single 35mm print costs about $1,500 to produce and send to theaters. By contrast, digital movie hard drives only cost about $150.
It will become nearly impossible for the remaining theaters to find first-run films from major studios on 35mm film, meaning they will have to show older or independent films that are not large draws.
The Buffalo News has the sad tale:
To continue in business, the publicly run Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre, which already struggles financially, would have to upgrade its digital projectors – an estimated expenditure of $420,000.
Brendan R. Mehaffy, who heads the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, said the city, which owns the Market Arcade building, is not willing to spend the estimated $60,000 per projector required for the theater’s seven screens. But the digital conversion may not be enough for a facility that has seen few upgrades in its 26-year history, since other significant improvements are considered necessary.
Wrestling with the problem are two not-for-profits – Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre Inc., which oversees the theater, and Buffalo Place, the agency that boosts downtown – and Dipson Theatres, the chain that operates the showplace.
General Cinema Theaters operated the heavily-subsidized eight-screen complex when it opened in 1987. It was General Cinema’s first new downtown theater in over a decade and ranked in the top 50 out of its 350 complexes shortly after opening. Not for long. With attendance dwindling, General Cinema did not renew its lease and pulled out in 1998.
After a short stint with the Angelika Film Center, Dipson Theatres was brought on in 2000.
Buffalo Place Executive Director Michael Schmand says the complex’s capital needs go beyond projectors and include new stadium-style, reclining seating, upgrades to the heating and air conditioning systems, and remodeling of bathroom and concession areas.
Schmand tells The News that losing the theaters would be a big hit, particularly when downtown momentum is increasing:
“Bringing traffic back to Main Street is going to be a huge shot in the arm for any businesses that are in the Theatre District. It would be a shame at this point that after holding on for so long, that we lose the theater at a time when downtown is on a resurgence,” Schmand said.
A movie house, he said, is an important part of the downtown mix – including ice skating, concerts, sporting events and farmers’ markets – for a successful downtown.
Closing the theater will make it harder to reopen, Schmand warned. “Once you lose a theater, it’s awfully difficult to open it back up,” he said. “We already have one, and we want to keep it open.”