Rick Schmitt is a manager of Frankfort's Garden Theater. It reopened only 2 years ago. It cost nearly a half-million dollars to renovate. The Art Deco-style theater was originally built in 1923. It has 320 seats. The Garden shows first-run movies and independent and foreign films. Its basic goal is to break even and remain open through ticket sales. And it's doing pretty well. It's paying its bills and even investing in improvements. Restaurant owners close to the theater tell Schmitt they're doing better since the Garden reopened.
But now, there's a problem.
Schmitt says, "The movie studios are moving toward digital projection systems and that really is a threat to the single-screen art house theaters across the country and the Garden Theater is no exception to that."
Show Me the Money
That digital projection equipment is expensive. Schmitt says a used system would cost about 60-thousand dollars and a new one about twice as much. The Garden Theater has a perfectly good movie projector in its booth. But that is going to become obsolete - at least for showing first-run movies.
That's because the major movie studios are shooting no more movies - none - on movie film. And this change has happened so quickly that it's taken many theater owners by surprise.
Jenn Jennings has worked at the State Theatre.
She now lives in Boston and is making a documentary about the film-to-digital conversion. She's talked with dozens of small theater owners.
Jenn says, "A year ago, when I started asking the independent markets, 'You know, what are you going to do?' they all had the opinion, the majority of them had the opinion, 'Well, this isn't going to be my problem because film is always going to be available.'"
The movie studios still make film prints of their movies shot with digital cameras but fewer and fewer as time goes by. In fact, when the Garden Theater recently ordered a print of the hit film, "The Help," Schmitt had to wait three months to get it.
That's because small theaters like the Garden aren't exactly on the major studios' radar.
According to Schmitt, "The movie studios aren't real excited to send us a copy of that print because, when it comes down to dollars and cents, they can make more money sending a copy of that print somewhere else."
Meanwhile, many Frankfort theatre-goers went elsewhere to see it.
The major studios have said that no new movies on film will be available by 2013. That doesn't leave the Garden Theater in the best position.
Schmitt says, "Does it keep us up at night for the future? It absolutely does because if we were to have to purchase a digital projection system at the current price, based on our current volume, we're talking about years and years and years of saving money to able to afford that."
Jenn Jennings also worries that digital technology changes so fast, that digital projectors won't be a one-time fee for theaters. The Garden's movie projector is vintage 1950.
She says, "They're already talking about rolling out another phase of digital projectors from what they installed, you know, five years ago."
And many film connoisseurs still insist that the look of digital will never rival the look of light being projected through movie film.