Local independent movie theaters that haven't made the switch to a digital projection system have until ... well, they don't exactly know when they'll have to upgrade their systems without risking the ability to screen current movies.
They just know they'll have to, and soon.
"First it was the first quarter of 2013, now maybe it's 2014," said Gordon Einhorn, part of the team running Middletown's one-screen Elks Theatre, which hasn't made the digital conversion yet. "Everybody knows it's coming, and it's coming in the near future. We just don't know when."
Hollywood movie studios are preparing to end their production and distribution of 35mm, reel-to-reel movie prints that are sent to movie theaters around the world for customers to watch on the big screen. Studios plan to distribute movies exclusively in a digital format, a move poised to save them a collective $1 billion annually, according to Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer for the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO).
That leaves movie theaters having to convert to a digital projection system — a process that costs between $50,000 and $60,000 per screen — or else they may not be able to show current movies. As of the start of September, 4,427 of the country's 5,749 movie theaters in the United States had converted to a digital projection system, Corcoran said. That's 77 percent of theaters, although it represents almost 90 percent of the country's movie screens, he said, showing that most of the non-converting theaters are one- or two-screen outfits.
However, there has been no official target date announced for when any movie studio will stop making 35mm prints, theater officials said. Corcoran said the original estimate his organization floated was by the end of this year.
"Now it looks like it may drag on a little," he said, adding that digital theater conversions have gone much slower than expected in southern Europe and in Latin America, keeping studios invested in making prints. "And I don't think any studio is willing to be the first to say (they're stopping prints)."
Angela Shaw, spokeswoman for Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., said there isn't a target date for the studio to stop distributing 35mm prints. A studio official at Sony Pictures in Culver City, Calif., also said there is no target date.
"Nobody wants to be the bad guy," Gina DiSanto, president of NATO of Pennsylvania, said of the studios' lack of a deadline. "There are a number of small theaters that are going to close because of the conversion, and I don't think any studio wants to be the one to put them out of business."
While the lack of a deadline could be frustrating for the theaters, it's allowed owners more time to raise money. Fred Bollen, owner of the West Shore Theatre in New Cumberland, is about $60,000 away from being able to convert his theater's two screens to a digital projection system.
Even though he has more time to convert the theater he's owned since 1986, he'd still like to know when the deadline is.
"I think they're all chicken, for one thing," he said of the studios. "Nobody wants to take the first step to smush people."
Einhorn, vice chairman of the Greater Middletown Economic Development Corp., which operates the Elks as a nonprofit, said the "Save the Elks" campaign is on track to raise the $60,000 or so needed for the digital conversion by early 2014.
Should 35mm prints disappear, he said, the Elks could continue the theater's "Classic Films Series" on the 35mm prints exclusively. The series has different themes each month, and the proceeds go directly to the theater's campaign.
"That would be an option to tide us over until we can make the conversion," Einhorn said. "We actually do better (financially) with our classic film series than we do with our current movies. If they told us tomorrow 35mm prints were going away, we could keep the doors open that way."
The Ephrata Main Theatre in Lancaster County plans to show its first digital movie Friday, owner Steve Brown said. The digital system was installed this week and cost between $100,000 and $110,000, he said.
The conversion comes with a price — Brown will be raising ticket prices to $8 from $6 to pay for the system. He said after studio fees and operational costs, the theater will see about 75 cents of that increase.
If attendance is steady at the theater despite the price increase, it will be enough to pay for the conversion, he said. Otherwise, the news probably won't be good.
"Two years into this, if people aren't showing up, the bank is going to come in and take the projectors, because we won't be able to pay for them," Brown said. "In essence, the people will be shutting their own theater down. There's a lot of people who really take this theater seriously. They had their first kiss here, their first movie with their kids here, and I think that nostalgia will keep this theater going. It always has."