Theaters moving toward digital projection conversion

Falls Cinema without a plan at this point

The Falls Theater in downtown Little Falls was built in 1933, the only theater in the area designed expressly for sound pictures.

“After Labor Day, 35mm prints of movies that are sent to theaters will be cut way back,” said Eric Carlisle, manager of the Paradise Theater in Mora, “as the film industry is pushing theaters to convert to digital projectors.
“My booking agency let me know that if theaters haven’t completed the conversion to digital projection by then, it will be much more difficult to get a first-run movie,” he said.
“The industry can make a digital print to send to theaters for less than $50,” said Carlisle. “It costs a studio $1,500 each for a 35mm copy, which includes shipping.”
“I’ve had to do the research. As the theater manager, part of my job description is to order movies, see what is available and read about the film industry,” he said.
“Many theaters across the country with multiple screens will convert one screen at first, until they absolutely need to do the others,” said Carlisle. “They will either go out of business or they will convert.”

The online movie Web site Box Office Mojo estimates there are 220 theaters in Minnesota, comprising 1,053 screens. Some are multiplex centers like AMC and Marcus. But many others are family-owned and have fewer than the average 4.8 screens.

Peter Scholl, owner of the triple-screened Falls Cinema in Little Falls, said, “I’m looking into it, trying to figure out how to raise the money. The cost is about $75,000 per digital projector.”

The Lowell theater opened in 1915 on the site where the Falls Cinema stands, according to the city of Little Falls Web site. But after the first “talkie” film in 1927, the conversion to sound doomed many theaters; technology was expensive.

Then the depression came and Americans turned on their radios instead of going to the theater. The Lowell burned in January 1933 and The Falls was built on the same site.
It opened in June 1933 with “Somewhere in Sonoma” starring John Wayne. Even then, the theater had air conditioning. It was advertised as being the only theater in the area designed expressly for sound movies.

“There used to be three theaters in Little Falls,” said Don Opatz, chair of the Heritage Preservation Commission. “There was the Ripley Theater, the Airport Drive-In south of town, and the Falls Cinema.” Now the Falls Cinema is the only theater in Morrison County, he said.

“Not having a theater would be a real loss for our community,” said Opatz. “It is an asset. People who don’t drive or can’t drive would be without a theater. The cost of fuel would be too high to drive about 30 miles to the nearest theater.”

“It would have a huge affect on local youth who count on that as local entertainment,” said Mary Kenna, program coordinator for Healthy Communities Collaborative (HCC). Youth as Resources is a program managed by HCC.

“As someone who works with youth, it really concerns me about what youth would do on Friday and Saturday nights. And for families, just having that opportunity to do that family activity in town is important,” Kenna said.

“If we were to lose our theater then our children would have to go out of town like so many other things, or they’ll sit at home and won’t partake of other things our society has to offer — families getting together, socializing together,” said Little Falls Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem, who is a committee member on the Mayor’s Youth Task Force.

Carol Hart is executive director of the Northern Lights Arts Council in Langdon, N. D., a town of just under 2,000. “The Council purchased the Roxy Theater in Langdon in 1997 and refurbished it using donations, after it had been closed for about two years. We are a non-profit,” she said.

“In May 2011, an article in our local newspaper said that we had to do this by 2013 or the theater would close,” said Hart. “We did not hold any fundraisers, but just accepted donations from local businesses and residents. We raised $87,000 and the digital projection system was installed in September.”

“Donations were given by many people who didn’t even go to the theater. But people wanted to keep the theater and were willing to donate to do that,” she said. “They wanted a viable business on Main Street.”

“We now get movies more quickly, with better picture and better sound,” said Hart. “There are funds left over which we intend to use for refurbishing the marquee, when we can find someone willing to do the work. The theater was placed on the National Historic Register in 1999.”

Brigid Halberg, manager of the Milaca Theater, said “We are in the beginning stages of fundraising. We are forming a plan and working out the details to do the conversion.”

The Paradise Theater in Mora, population about 3,000, has raised about $12,500 so far, said Carlisle. “Eight different organizations have contributed. Since we are a non-profit we are applying to the East Central Regional Arts Committee for a $15,000 grant.”

“We are applying for grants, asking local organizations and businesses, and sending letters to past donors,” Carlisle said.

“We as a theater board have already decided to go ahead and do the conversion, because we committed to it,” he said. “If we have to borrow money, we will have to raise ticket prices. But our goal is to not have to do that.”

“Digital movies have better picture quality,” said Carlisle. “Theaters which have converted get more first-run shows, and can also do live shows such as the Academy Awards and the Emmys. We would love to be able to do that.”

“I believe the local theater is an important part of life,” said Carlisle. “It’s a big part of American entertainment, a staple.”

“I hope the theater will keep going because it really is important to our community,” VanRisseghem said.