The film industry is in the midst of a sea change, ushering out the century-old motion picture projection system for new digital technology.
For two local theaters — Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House and Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre — the coming two weeks are a pivotal time in the transition, as the Wheeler celebrates its last film screenings and the Crystal pushes to raise money to keep itself afloat and convert to digital.
Worldwide, small independent theaters like the Crystal are in a “go digital or go dark” dilemma, as film distributors are poised to stop delivering traditional prints by the end of this year. For studios, digital movies will save billions of dollars in printmaking and shipping costs, but for small theaters, paying for equipment to play them is an onerous feat.
To fund a conversion, this spring the Crystal launched a $70,000 fundraising campaign to purchase a digital projector, with a deadline of May 31.
As of press time, it had raised $56,000, giving the theater a week to raise $14,000 and meet its goal.
The Crystal is a quaint, one-screen, 125-seat theater in the historic Dinkel building, built in 1912. It was converted into the Crystal Theatre in 1949, when an adult ticket cost 44 cents. It closed in 1962, as competition from television kept crowds away. After sporadic use for screenings and live performances, the building was condemned in the early 1980s. Owners Bob and Kathy Ezra remodeled and reopened it in 1985.
The fundraising push included a movie memorabilia sale at this month’s First Friday celebration that garnered more than $11,000, and donations through the theater’s website and in person. Donors can also give to the campaign at any Alpine Bank.
Bob Ezra said they’ve received anonymous $20 bills slid under the theater door during off-hours in recent weeks and many unexpected gifts. Most of the donations have come from between Glenwood Springs and Aspen, but the Ezras say they’ve also received checks from Michigan, North Carolina and beyond.
“It’s overwhelming, really,” Kathy Ezra says. “We’re just kind of speechless when people put a donation in our hands.”
In all, they’ve received more than 400 individual donations.
As the campaign comes to a close, the Crystal is playing “Across the Universe,” the Beatles-scored musical film from 2007 and a fan favorite at the theater, for a three night run. It plays this Wednesday, May 29 through Friday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s a way to wrap up the campaign and do something fun,” says Kathy.
The Crystal crew put the May 31 deadline in place themselves. So if they don’t meet their goal by then, it won’t mean they need to shutter their doors immediately on June 1.
The movie house owners are unsure of what kind of digital configuration they’ll install in the theater, if they reach their goal. The $70,000 sum was based on a ballpark figure to help them purchase the most appropriate digital projection equipment. Industry estimates for conversion are $65,000 to $100,000 per screen.
While some purists have called on the theater to keep its 35 mm projector for occasional screenings, the Ezras say they don’t have space for both.
“We’d love to do that but we don’t have room in the booth,” Bob explains.
They opted to do a public fundraising push based, in part, on interest from local movie-goers who were asking this spring how they could help the theater convert.
“It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience,” Kathy says. “We’ve never done anything like this before.”
Her husband cuts in at that point and adds: “And we’ll never do it again!”
Further down the valley in Glenwood Springs, the one-screen independent Springs Theatre is facing the same plight. The theater is attempting to qualify for a studio-funded loan for the digital conversion, but hasn’t secured one yet, says manager John Buxbaum. Aspen’s Isis Theater and Basalt’s Movieland both have already converted, with funding from their corporate operators.
At the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, a digital conversion is scheduled for the fall as part of a larger $2.9 million balcony renovation for the historic 1889-built venue. The Wheeler is funded by a dedicated real estate transfer tax in the city of Aspen.
The Wheeler Film Society is closing out its annual spring series over the next two weeks and, in early June, staging what are likely to be the last actual film screenings in Aspen. Film’s going out in epic style, though, with the ultimate epic movie: David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia.” It will run at the Wheeler June 3-6 at 7:30 p.m.
“You’ll be seeing the film as Lean intended it to be seen,” says John Busch, who runs the Wheeler Film Society and curates its film series.
Considered among the greatest movies ever made, the Best Picture winner chronicles the life of T.E. Lawrence. Logging in at more than three-and-a-half hours, the 70 mm print that will screen here takes up 13 reels of film weighing about 40 pounds apiece.
“It’s going to cost me $800 in shipping,” laughs Busch.
Digital movies will save such costs, coming on encrypted hard drives or in download form. The aesthetic difference between film and digital, to average moviegoers, is minimal, says Busch. The only area he points out where digital technology falls short so far is in shades of black.
The Film Society’s “Farewell to Film” series nearly sold out the opera house earlier this month for a 70 mm screening of New Hollywood legend and Aspenite Bob Rafelson’s “Mountains of the Moon.”
This week, the series continues with screenings of the Chilean film, “No,” depicting the end of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s reign. It was nominated this year for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and screens Friday, May 24 and Saturday, May, 25 at 7:30 p.m., with a 4:30 p.m. matinee on Saturday. Walter Salles’ 2012 adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” screens Tuesday, May 28 and Wednesday May 29, at 7:30 p.m.