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New projectors could bring end for endangered drive-ins, theaters

Projectionist Walter Becker from Lombard switches  an intermissireel between films Cascade Drive-In Theater West Chicago. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times

Projectionist Walter Becker, from Lombard, switches to an intermission reel between films at the Cascade Drive-In Theater in West Chicago. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 6, 2012 6:10AM



An expensive change in movie-projection technology could become the coup de grace that finally kills off the few remaining drive-in movie theaters and old-style downtown movie houses.

The studios that distribute Hollywood “films” have announced that during 2013, they will stop distributing movies on expensive, heavy plastic film and will send new movies out to theaters only on inexpensive, easy-to-handle computer hard drives or satellite downloads.

For the studios, that will save an estimated $1 billion a year. But for theater owners, it means they must replace their old-style film projectors with digital projectors at a price of $70,000 to $130,000 each.

The big theater chains that own the giant multiplexes aren’t thrilled by this prospect, but they can afford to finance it. The Marcus Elgin Cinema, for example, replaced all its projectors with digital devices last year. Downers Grove-based Tivoli Classic Cinemas re-equipped its Charlestowne 18 Cinema in St. Charles and Cinema 12 in Carpentersville with digital projectors last spring.

“We spent $70,000 to convert each auditorium, over $1 million at Charlestowne alone,” Classic Cinemas Vice President Chris Johnson said. “But if we hadn’t done that, we would have been out of business in 2013.”

New technology

In recent decades, movies have been delivered to theaters in cans of film. Projectionists then had to lay these out on a “platter” some 6 feet wide and splice each reel together so the film could be fed into a projector.

Each can of film weighed about 9 pounds and contained about 20 minutes of movie. The film for a movie such as “Titanic” weighed about 100 pounds, required physically splicing together five miles of film, and cost its studio more than $1,000 each to copy.

Now, Charlestowne projection-booth manager Eric Hutchins said, a movie arrives in the form of a computer hard drive about 8 inches long, light enough to hold easily in one hand. And soon, most movies will be delivered to the theater via a satellite download.

But the mom-and-pop operators of drive-ins and old-style downtown theaters face a double whammy. Unable to take advantage of economies of scale and often forced to change their ventilation and electrical systems, too, they must pay $100,000 or more for each new system. Yet they have a smaller income base upon which to draw.

Drive-ins such as the Cascade on Route 64 in West Chicago and the McHenry Outdoor in McHenry can operate for only eight months or so per year. Old-stye movie houses such as the Catlow in downtown Barrington often show older movies at bargain prices, operating as much for the love of what they do as to make a profit.

Donation drive

So in an effort to stay alive in the coming digital age, the Cascade, McHenry and Catlow have turned to an unorthodox new method of finance — asking their fans to donate money toward their digital conversion via a website called KickStarter.com that conducts charity-style fundraising drives for projects in the arts.

Their efforts have met with varying success:

First to try the fundraising route was Barrington’s Catlow, an 85-year-old theater with architecture so unique that it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

When Catlow co-owner Tim O’Connor posted a plea for help on KickStarter.com this summer, he wrote that “the message from the movie companies to small theaters like ours is clear: ‘Go digital or go dark.’ ”

Thanks to the prosperity of people who live in Barrington and the special passion the Catlow inspires, that effort was a shining success. The Catlow’s goal was $100,000 in donations. By the time the deadline for the drive came, 1,394 people had made pledges, for a total of $175,395 — or almost twice as much as the Catlow needed.

O’Connor says the excess will be used to pay for some other needed repairs and upgrades to the historical building.

The Cascade’s fundraising, also aiming to raise $100,000, has been a flop so far. Co-owners Jeff Kohlberg and Poppy Cataldo (a brother and sister in their 60s who grew up in the theater business) started their KickStarter campaign last month. With a deadline of this Friday, it has attracted only a couple dozen donors who have pledged less than $1,000. But Kohlberg said he and Cataldo should be able to finance the new equipment using other means and he expects the Cascade drive-in to reopen for its 52nd season in spring 2013.

Theater struggling

The most endangered theater in this area is the McHenry Outdoor.

“The cost of a digital projector is approximately $77,000,” said owner Scott Dehn. “The renovation needed in the projection booth to accommodate this new projector will cost an additional $60,000. As a seasonal entity, the McHenry Outdoor Theater simply cannot afford to pay for this conversion without the help from the public.”

Like the Cascade, the McHenry Outdoor’s conversion would require not only installing a new projector but adding new air conditioning and ventilation systems to cope with its greater heat output, and rewiring the booth’s electrical system.

Since starting its KickStarter fund drive on Sept. 29, with a deadline of Nov. 28, the McHenry has attracted 226 donors with pledges totaling $19,516 — less than a sixth of the way to the goal, with no private source of funding to serve as a backup.



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