LAKE PLACID - Thirteen independently owned North Country movie theaters have teamed up to seek funding to help pay for an upcoming film-to-digital conversion, an expense too big for them to bear on their own.
Movie screens, projectors and sound equipment at theaters across the country will need to be converted from celluloid film format to digital film by December 2013 or risk shutting down, according to North Country theater owners and members of the Adirondack Film Society. Theaters have no choice but to make the upgrades because movie distributors are making the switch to digital. The change will affect 13 theaters in the North Country, including the ones in Lake Placid, Tupper Lake, AuSable Forks, Plattsburgh and Potsdam.
Those theater owners, as well as the Film Society, enlisted the help of Keene Valley grant writer Naj Wikoff to prepare and submit a consolidated funding application to the state in hopes of receiving grant monies to offset conversion costs. The total cost of converting 37 movie screens at 13 theaters would be about $2.9 million: The applicants are seeking about $2.18 million in Empire State Development funds, and the remaining $727,000 or so would come from the theaters and other sources.
Lake Placid’s Palace Theatre, seen here on Thursday, is one of 13 North Country movie theaters that will need to convert to a new digital format in order to stay open.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
John B. Huttlinger Jr. is chairman of the Adirondack Film Society. He said the grant request was turned in last week.
"(It's) a daunting expense for most of the theaters," he said during a press conference at the Palace Theatre in Lake Placid on Thursday.
Huttlinger said his organization has estimated the economic impact of theaters in the North Country at more than $11 million. He said those theaters employ some 120 people with full-time jobs and introductory positions.
"Beyond that goes the social and community aspects," Huttlinger said. "Many of these are the anchors of their downtown communities. They draw people to the community centers."
Many North Country theaters, like the Palace in Lake Placid and the Hollywood in AuSable Forks, are housed in historic buildings, Huttlinger noted.
Nelson Page, the Film Society's vice chairman, owns theaters in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He said the conversion from film to digital format will be a forced one, and he'll have to close theaters as a result.
"The film that we use, that goes through the projectors as we speak, has become obsolete," Page said.
"You have to take the existing equipment, and you have to eliminate it, which means that all of this goes out the door, and you have to start fresh," he added, tossing aside a reel of film to illustrate his point. "Which means new electric, new speakers, new amplifiers, new projectors, new screens - everything is new, because the medium is completely different."
Page said the cost to make that change is "prohibitively expensive" for small-town theaters. For a theater with one screen, the cost to convert ranges from $80,000 to $125,000, depending on the size of the screen and the auditorium. The Palace, owned for more than five decades by Reg and Barbara Clark, has four screens, which means $400,000 to $500,000 in conversion costs.
The importance of movie theaters goes beyond their economic impact, Page said.
"It's also a central gathering place for the people in the community," he said. "We're not talking municipalities of 15, 16, 17 thousand people. You're talking a couple of thousand people who religiously come here on a weekly, biweekly basis. You're losing the center of the community, you're losing an economic engine and you're losing something that really binds the fabric of your community together."
Page said some people will argue that the market should dictate whether these businesses should survive, but he said theaters like the Palace are doing fine.
"He's going to be prohibited from being able to continue in business because the industry has changed, and it's not a gradual change. We're talking 12 to 18 months, film ceases to exist as a medium by which we can exhibit motion pictures," Page said.
"Just imagine not a single movie theater open in the Adirondack Park in a year," Wikoff said, "so that people in the Adirondacks, an area the size of the state of Vermont, would have to go to Plattsburgh, they'd have to go to Glens Falls or Syracuse to see a movie."
Wikoff said theaters have the option of leasing new equipment from distributors, but if they do that, the distributors get full control over what a theater shows. The grant funds would help theaters purchase the projectors outright, he said.
Wikoff said he was in the process of applying for funds through the North Country Regional Economic Development Council but missed the deadline by four minutes. Empire State Development let him submit the grant application to the agency directly, and the application will be compared to other priority projects throughout the state.
Corey Hanf owns the Hollywood Theater and got his start in the industry as an employee at the Palace. He said he bought a 100-year-old building and spent six years repairing it to "bring it back to life."
Hanf said his theater will have to spend money just to continue business as usual. The switch to digital won't bring any additional profits, he said.
"The studios take a percentage; that doesn't change," Hanf said.
Hanf will have to spend $200,000 to upgrade his theater. He said he won't be able to do it by himself.
"Like Reg, we put on Christmas shows, we do things for the fire department all year, we do things with the elementary school all year long," Hanf said. "Our little town took a couple hits over the last couple of years with big businesses pulling out. We are a heartbeat of that town right now. ... That's what a lot of these theaters are like.
"We need help, and there's really no other way to say it. We need help to stay in business."
Reg Clark said he estimates $100,000 per screen to make the changes.
"I don't know what would happen," he said. "We've talked of doing two theaters and shutting down the other two, but I just hate to do that."
His wife, Barbara, said the theater was expanded to four screens in order to survive economically.
"Would this mean we couldn't survive with two again? It might," she said. "That's what we would have to face."
The Clarks said all theaters are in the same boat, and they're grateful for the work the Film Society has done to pursue state funding.
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or email@example.com.