Can movie theaters keep reeling it in?

March 14, 2012 Denise Romano
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With expensive changes in technology, the question can’t help but arise — Will independently owned movie theaters be a nostalgic thing of the past, much like old-fashioned diners and drive-ins?

There’s good reason for concern. Over the past 10 years, movie studios in Hollywood have been working on a new standard for digital movies that could save them $1 billion each year in printmaking costs and shipping fees. Instead of using regular 35mm film, movies will be shipped on hard drives that can hold a larger amount of data and be easily hooked up to a super-high-definition projector.

According to John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, 35mm film of new releases from major studios will no longer be available in the U.S. by 2013, forcing all movie theaters to convert to digital projectors.

While large multiplexes, like the United Artists’ cinema in Sheepshead Bay, may not blink an eye over the conversion, independently owned theaters could struggle. The cost of conversion runs about $70,000 per screen.

Joe Viera, who manages Alpine Cinemas on Fifth Avenue, said they have no choice but to bite the bullet. “We will be needing to switch to digital eventually. Obviously, it’s going to cost a lot of money to do that, but it’s a necessity if you want to stay in the movie business,” he said.

Harvey Elgart, who owns Cobble Hill Cinemas on Court Street, said he started converting all five of his screens back in 2009 and finished the project at the end of 2011. He considered himself lucky that he was able to shell out all that cash.

“Unfortunately, what will happen is that little Main Street theaters will close their doors because they can’t make the investment,” Elgart explained. “It’s the greed of the industry – they don’t want to pay to make prints anymore.”

Although the digital conversion is costly, there is a bright side: the cost of shipping a film stored on a hard drive is much cheaper than shipping its 35mm predecessor, making transactions about 75 percent less expensive in the long run.

Even with conversion costs, Viera said he doesn’t anticipate raising any prices at his theater, including fees for tickets and concessions.

But not everyone was buying it. “Prices will go up,” Alexis M. of Bay Ridge said. “If they do, you may as well go to the city [to see a movie]. It’s sad because a lot of families go to the Alpine to save money.”

Her friend Sadia B. noted that the Alpine is still relatively cheaper than bigger theaters, with matinee prices at $7 for adults, compared to $10 at the bigger theater in Sheepshead Bay.

“They should do their best to keep prices low because this is the only theater in this area,” she explained.

Tom C., who sees a movie occasionally, agreed. “If they go up, it will bother people. I will just wait until it [the movie] comes out on DVD,” he said. “Prices are high enough as it is.”

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