Will Switching to Digital Close Small-Town Movie Theaters?

Will Switching to Digital Close Small-Town Movie Theaters?

Aug 25, 2011

Jem Movie TheatreIn Peter Bogdanovich's classic The Last Picture Show, the closing of the only movie theater in the fictional small town of Anarene, Texas, presaged the end of an era. Very soon, however, real-life versions of that scenario could be enacted in small towns across America. 

The film industry is moving toward all-digital projection. AMC Theatres, for example, has been busy converting all of its screens -- more than 4,500 -- to digital since 2009; it plans to complete the transition in 2012. But AMC Theatres is a large corporation; what about the mom-and-pop operators of single theaters, who don't have millions of dollars in revenue flowing into their coffers? "It's not an investment that's going to increase our revenue," Michelle Haugerud told Minnesota Public Radio. "It's not going to change the number of people that come." 
 
She and her husband Paul own and operate the JEM Movie Theatre in Harmony, Minnesota, a town whose population numbers just over 1,000 people. Tickets are $4.00. For the Haugeruds and thousands of other theater owners across the country, making an investment of $60-75,000 in digital equipment is a huge challenge, especially in a depressed economy. As the supply of 35mm prints for new films inevitably dwindles, small theater owners face the prospect of changing their programming entirely -- and thus risk losing customers who are only interested in seeing the latest movies from Hollywood -- or closing their doors. In an effort to avoid that fate, the Haugeruds, who both work full-time jobs during the week, have started a fund-raising campaign.  If that fails and they are forced to close, long-time patron Judy Underbakke observed:  "It's going to affect the gas station, these little restaurants in town. ... It's going to have a trickle down effect." 
 
All across America, you can hear the clock ticking. Whistling winds blowing down empty Main Streets await. Will small-town theaters survive? If you live in a smaller community, what will happen if the local theater closes? 

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