We’re in danger of losing our movie theater in Lake Placid. The Palace Theatre, on main street since 1926, is under pressure from movie distributors to convert to digital projection, a process with immense costs, challenges, and moral implications. This issue, along with how the impending digital switch affects other regional, independent theaters, was the topic of a panel discussion held a week ago during the Lake Placid Film Forum.
The panelists whose opinions and expertise were brought to bear on the situation included Rochester theater-owner Bill Coppard, Besty Lowe, filmmaker Gregory Orr, and Adirondack Film Society vice chairman Nelson Page.
Page delivered an impassioned speech when introduced to the group by moderator Bill Coppard, beginning with “I’m a showman; my job is to entertain you.” However, Page urged the attending group – a mixture of young filmmakers, area politicos and concerned citizens – to understand that what was at stake was more than an arts & cultural issue. “This is an economic development issue,” he said. Page pointed out that, while a thriving community in many ways, Lake Placid doesn’t have an awful lot to offer families and visitors in the way of night life. The Palace, an anchor of Main Street since the 1920s, has provided evening entertainment for the locals and visitors for nearly a century – this, then, translates to business for the surrounding restaurants and retail shops. In a moment of grave prophecy, Page declared that without the Palace, “they’ll be gone.”
So what is exactly the issue? How do we not lose the Palace due to some vague concept about converting to digital? That’s likely the question on most people’s minds, and that was the purpose of the panel as well, to begin a trend that raises awareness. Raising awareness and “getting on the radar,” as Jim McKenna opined from the audience, is the way out of this crisis.
Here’s the situation: Instead of making and shipping prints around to the theaters, distributors will now send them a big hard drive with the movie on it. Actually, this practice is somewhat more environmentally sound – traditional celluloid film contains highly flammable acetate, for one thing – though saving the planet is not likely the motivation. The motivation is fiscal; it’s cheaper to put movies, shot digitally or on film, on a hard drive. Prints are incredibly huge and heavy and costly to transport.
The problem is, in order to show the films which would now come on hard drive, you need a projector that costs about 70,000 dollars and requires a special maintenance person. That means the traditional projectionist is now obsolete. The man or woman who knows the different rates of speed for 16, 35, and 70 mm film, who can work the platter system like a deejay spinning discs at a club, they’re out of work.
So, 70,000 bucks per theater for the projector, the loss of your projectionists, plus new sound to be up to standard with the new projector, and this is for each auditorium. A movie theater like the Palace which has four screens? That’s an investment of half a million dollars to turn over to digital projection. What’s more, is that with the traditional projection method, once you had your projector you were set for a long time to come, maybe only needing to change a bulb once every decade – tens of thousands of hours of movies flickering on the screen. With the new projectors, Page pointed out to the group, you may only have as much as 600 hours per bulb. And they are costly bulbs.
Now imagine how many times you’ve had to upgrade your phone or your personal computer in the past couple of years, and imagine that the same new software and hardware is likely going to require constant upgrades for the projector, and it starts to look like a bit of a nightmare. Yet, it’s the only choice. Or is it?
What are the alternatives? In a vehemently optimistic plea, attending filmmaker Chris Federico (who went on to win the audience choice for best short film a few hours later) lamented that film was not dead, and that prints were still viable for exhibition – if the theatre knew the right movies to play and the right spin to put on them. Barry Snyder, also in the audience, who runs the student filmmaking competition “Sleepless in Lake Placid,” referred to the T-Rex in Vermont and the idea of alternative programming like the T-Rex’s “throwback Thursday.” A representative of the Saratoga Film Forum added that the way to possibly work alternative programming is to become more than just “a theater,” but to offer something unique, like a café, or dinner-and-a-movie type fare.
Nelson Page was grim about these possibilities. A theater owner himself, Mr. Page didn’t think a business like the Palace could survive as an alternative, or “arthouse” cinema.
What are we actually talking about with “alternative,” anyway? To put it simply: distributors have bookers, and most theaters tend to work with a booker to get their films in each weekend. It’s understandable – it would be a very involved process to book your own films for every weekend on top of everything else that goes into the business (though Sally Strasser does it at the State Theater in Tupper Lake). The bookers, though, are a pushy lot. Their job is to make sure that the studio they represent gets their film shown on as many screens in that theatre and for as many weekends as possible.
This, Page explained, is essentially where multi-screen theaters came from. “You can’t show the same movie on your only screen for three weeks – nobody will come,” he said. So you have multiple screens in order to satisfy a contract which states you show “The Avengers” for four weeks, and still have the ability to show other films and make a living. The pressure from the bookers is immense, and accounts for a lot of the criticism about a lack of film-going options these days. The big money wins, and the films with the most powerful distributors hog up the theaters. The split is pretty unsavory, too – Page shared some percentages, claiming that the first week a film runs, the distributor takes 70 percent.
Back to the central issue, though – can the Palace manage to raise the awareness and get on the radar to gather the funds needed to convert? Perhaps the other, and in some ways more important question is – should it? By converting to digital, the Palace continues to play ball with the bullies of the film exhibition world, being told what to show, how to show it, and not even allowed, really, to touch the equipment, but call a special repairman when it breaks or needs an upgrade every six months – or who knows how often.
On the other hand, can a venue like the Palace, in a small town with robust tourism only part of the year, make it on alternative steam? Program independently, getting lesser-known but top-quality films that engage a young, hip audience, show throwback films to the delight of an older audience who revisit past memories? Some say that the movie theatre is “dead” altogether, pointing to their mega TVs or in-home projection and 7.1 surround sound. Maybe they prefer to sit there alone or with the same people night after night, but much of the world still enjoys going out, and the theater has been one of the prime date-destinations for a very long time. The Palace, a community endeavor to enrich Placid back in 1926, is now a community endeavor once again. Whether it will switch to digital or become alternative, or perhaps a combination of both, it will take “a village” to see it through.
Towards the end of the panel discussion, Karen Huttlinger spoke up, challenging the panelists and the entire audience, “What exactly are we going to do? Who is going to do it?” She wasn’t going to let anyone get away with rhetoric and what-ifs.
“One of the reasons I formed the Adirondack Film Society in 2000,” Nelson Page said, “was to help the Palace with issues just like this.”
(by t j brearton)
(photos by jordan craig)