HISTORIC THEATERS: Go Digital Or Go Dark

The productions might be the peak of modern technology, but the projectors that put them up on the big screen date back to the 1950’s.

Across Iowa, many small theaters are facing a big problem – either buck up or shut down.

Some change is inevitable; the prices, the names on the marquee.

An open theater can say something about the condition of a small town and perhaps improve it.

“I think it brings people to the downtown,” says Dawn Bleeker of Newton.

“You get to shop on the square when you’re done,” says Brandee Ferriss of Brooklyn,  “or have dinner before the movie.”

For almost 100 years, the Iowa Theater has persevered in Winterset.

“It’s just folksy and homey,” says longtime customer, Gordon Martens. “It’s a great place to come.”

But there’s a new change – one in Hollywood – that could be too much for small theaters like this.

“About 87% of the screens in the United States have converted to digital,” says Miles Derrick, manager of the Iowa, “and therefore the film companies are backing off the number of 35mm prints that they’re releasing.”

By the end of 2014, most film studios won’t offer films at all.

For theaters, it’s go digital or go dark.

“It’s gonna cost us $43,000,” Derrick says.

In Newton, the news is worse.

The Capitol II Theater has two screens and converting both to digital means over $100,000.

“That’s a lot of movie tickets,” says Bleeker.

Bleeker and her husband Paul said they knew what they were getting into when they bought the place, last year.

“We don’t have a choice,” she admits, “we either close the doors or we move forward, so our hope is that the community keeps supporting us by coming to the theater.”

popcorn pigThe Bleekers get help from volunteers who staff the theater and, in the case of Joy the family pig, clean up the popcorn.

But cheap labor and tickets sales won’t be enough.

“We’re going to have to take out a loan,” she says. “I mean, we’re just going to have to do that.”

Earlier this fall, the Metropolitan in Iowa Falls made the jump but it had a wealthy owner (and Hugh Jackman).

The Iowa is in a much tighter pinch.

“I’m hoping that we’ll get a grant someplace that will help us get a projection system,” says Derrick.

There are organizations that provide grants, but so far, they haven’t replied to the Iowa Theater.  Derrick contacted the foundation “Save America’s Cinemas” this year, and was told they’d hear back soon.

That was February.

So, all there is to do is keep threading in what films do come, and hope that the tickets keep selling and that a place that’s survived so many changes, can somehow survive one more.

3 comments

  • Laura Tong

    You know, poor business decisions like caring about a small community and the kids and people that live there having a place to enjoy movies. Its the placing profit over people that is making our world such a jacked up place. This community (and fortunately the one my family lives in) are so lucky to have people like this who are willing to take the risk and try to make these fabulous older theaters work!

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