Local indie movie theaters race to meet a digital deadline

Upstate Films in Woodstock. Photo from Upstate Films' Facebook wall.

Upstate Films, a nonprofit that runs two small arthouse movie theaters in Rhinebeck and Woodstock, is racing the clock to raise $180,000 for two digital projectors.

It's an upgrade the theaters are being forced to make, along with thousands of small movie theaters like them across the country. This year, all film distributors will stop making films available in the old 35mm analog format. 

With about $150,000 already raised, the Woodstock Times reports this week, the theaters are still $30,000 shy of the goal, and the clock is ticking. Upstate Films's Steve Lieber lays out the gravity of the situation:

“In the next three to four months, five at the most, distributors will no longer be making 35-millimeter prints. Celluloid, analog — finito,” reported Lieber. “Right now, in the Hudson Valley, every theater has already complied with this directive. We’re the only theater still doing 35-millimeter.”

Upstate Films is accepting donations for the digital transition online through their website.

Another local nonprofit movie house, the Walton Theatre, struggled last year to come up with $70,000 for a new digital projector. Over the past year, the Walton Theatre and its supporters have raised money one hard-fought dollar at a time, hosting everything from sock hops to snowblower raffles to keep the theater in business. In an October interview with the Watershed Post, the Walton Theatre's Jim Richardson talked about what having a small theater means to the community:

I think that the thing people have begun to realize is that it’s not just a historic theatre, but it’s become more of a community center. For a long while, it was a movie theatre and that was very important. But, movie theatres in small towns have sort of taken back seats – they never get the first run movies and they don’t quite have the features the big theatres have. It’s becoming a community place, and I think people appreciate that.

In November, the Walton Theater announced that they had met their fundraising goal for the cost of the projector, and would put any further funds toward the cost of other upgrades and expenses incurred in the transition.

According to a recent story in the Washington City Paper, film distributors have come up with a program to ease the financial burden of the transition on theaters, called a Virtual Print Fee, that offers financial incentives for theaters who agree to certain terms. But the terms aren't particularly friendly to small theaters, the City Paper reports:

That sounds great in theory, but it’s more complicated in practice, particularly for small independents and theaters that don’t do as much first-run content. While [Landmark Theatres CEO Ted] Mundorff describes the VPF programs as “incentives,” [AFI Silver Theatres' Todd] Hitchcock and [West End Cinema's Josh] Levin use less positive language. “My gut-level take on it,” says Hitchcock, is that “it’s sort of like taking out a mortgage.” Levin praises the way the program addresses the needs of most theaters, but he describes the restrictions as having “very strong strings attached, and it’s much more geared for studio product than for indie. We would be giving up programming control and not getting very much from it.”

Levin says accepting VPF money means entering into a contract that obligates the theater to show VPF films. “There’s going to be not just pressure, but a legal requirement in the contract to book VPF films,” he says. Major distributors and larger indies are part of that system, including enough of those providing content to Landmark Theatres, which has signed up for a VPF program. But the smaller indies, foreign distributors, and self-distributed films that make up much of the programming at cinemas like West End, the AFI, and Chevy Chase’s Avalon Theatre are not included. Those theaters would be forced to make their programming more mainstream and less diverse in order to take advantage. “We feel that the terms of the agreement would potentially limit the programming flexibility that we need to operate as an independent nonprofit,” says Bill Oberdorfer, the Avalon’s executive director.