After 50 years and three generations, the Blodgett family of Central City, Neb., soon may screen their last picture show at the State Theatre.
It's not that they don't want to pop the popcorn and load the film projector anymore. It's because soon there will be no film to load.
Hollywood studios are phasing out film prints, transitioning to digital because it's far cheaper to make and ship. A film print costs about $1,500 to make and ship to theaters, on multiple reels in heavy metal canisters. A digital copy, in a cassette about the size of a hard-cover novel, costs $150.
Twentieth Century Fox has said it will stop making film prints by the end of 2013. Other distributors are expected to follow suit, marking the end of an era that began when movies themselves were invented.
In Nebraska and Iowa, dozens of small-town movie theaters with just one or two screens face a tough choice. Either they must buy a digital movie projector and sound system, which costs about $70,000, or go out of business.
“I cannot afford to do it, plain and simple,” said Steve Blodgett, the State's owner. “In a small town, that kind of money, you can't come up with that easily. When the time comes, I'm probably closing the doors.”
In many small towns, running a movie theater has become more like a hobby or a labor of love than a profitable business — a luxury Blodgett says he can no longer afford. He already had to buy a new furnace last year.
Other towns or grassroots citizen groups have bought their theaters and operate them as nonprofits.
Blodgett, a track foreman for Union Pacific Railroad for 43 years, recently retired at age 61. His father bought the State about 50 years ago, and Steve has been running it with the help of his sons, Jamie and Jonathan, for the past 20 years.
“They can't afford to take it on,” he said. “I'm already having real problems getting movies. There's probably one-tenth of the amount of film out there that there used to be, and small theaters are competing for those prints.”
About 3,500 of the nation's 5,750 movie theaters have already converted to digital, said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Associaton of Theater Owners.
Most of the nation's 39,000 screens are in multiplexes. The film industry created a system to subsidize the cost of converting to digital, with payments coming from movie distributors. To qualify, theaters must show a minimum number of first-run films each year. That has left many small theaters without help, since they show fewer titles than multiscreen venues.
About 50 of Nebraska's 80 movie theaters have just one or two screens. Industry sources have estimated that up to 20 percent of theaters nationwide could close because of the digital deadline.
Like a school or restaurant closing, losing a movie theater can be one more nail in the coffin for a small town. But some Nebraska towns have been creative in finding ways to keep the lights on at their movie theaters.
The Royal Theatre in Ainsworth, Neb., entirely volunteer-run, has been digital for about two months. When the theater's owners decided to close about six years ago, a hastily formed group decided they weren't ready for that and bought the business.
A combination of city money and fundraising got them to the magic number of $70,000 for the digital equipment upgrade.
“The closest theater was about an hour away, in any direction,” said Stacie Goochey, president of the theater's board. “People decided they didn't want their kids driving late at night, in winter. We needed something for them to do on weekends.”
In Auburn, Neb., owners of the State Theatre donated it to the Auburn Public Schools to keep it open.
“It was time to either go digital or go out of the business,” said Kathy Ensz, who had run the theater for 24 years for a partnership of three couples, including her and her husband, Gary. “We had just paid off the note on the building. We're all in our mid-50s to 60s and didn't want to borrow another $100,000” for the upgrade.
There was no theater in Auburn when the Enszes moved there in the late 1980s. They knew there would probably never be another if they sold the building, which also contains rental properties.
Kevin Reiman, Auburn's school superintendent, saw an educational opportunity in the theater, a way for students to learn about running a business: bookkeeping, payroll, management, advertising and marketing. And there would be jobs for students as well.
No taxpayer funds are used to run the theater. A $95,000 fundraising campaign paid for the digital conversion and new seats.
“It's paying for itself,” said Carla Mason, hired by the district to manage the State. “The theater business is very challenging. It takes a lot of popcorn and candy to keep the doors open.”
In Burwell, the Rodeo Theatre closed in April when the film projector broke down. Owners Randy and Linda Gross said community fundraisers — trail rides, bake sales, even a steak and burger fry for which the local grocery donated meat — have so far raised $40,000 toward a digital projector. Fourth-graders in town are also collecting aluminum cans to raise funds.
If they reach the $70,000 goal, the Grosses hope to reopen next year.
“We believe the theater is essential to the fabric of the community,” Linda Gross said. “It's not just kids — it's an entertainment option for families in Burwell and surrounding towns. People may come for a movie, but then they also end up eating out.”
Owner Mike Schaefer spent $260,000 converting screens in Beatrice's two movie theaters and making other improvements last summer.
“It was a hard decision,” he said. “In two years I'd have had the theaters paid off. Now it could be eight more years. But I felt the community really needed it.”
While some theaters have struggled to get a bank loan, Schaefer secured a community development block grant loan through the city.
For small-town movie fans, keeping the theater open is worth paying something extra. In Auburn, individuals donated $50, $100, even $500 to the digital campaign. Groups ranging from the Optimists to the Rotary, Girl Scout troops to the Good Samaritan Center chipped in.
“It's about the only entertainment we have in town, and one of the few healthy ones for children,” said Dean Coulter, a regular moviegoer whose hotrod club made a sizable donation for the State Theatre in Auburn. “When the theater dies, a huge part of the town dies. I do not want that to happen here.”
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