With the pricey switch from 35mm projection systems to Digital Cinema Projection on the horizon, small-town movie theaters face a crisis. As of 2014, the majority of new films as well as re-releases coming out of Hollywood will no longer be produced on 35mm, and the equipment needed to show the new format doesn't come cheap.
Local non-profit Downtown Colorado Inc. saw the challenge for modest local movie- theater operations and wanted to help. And so Save Our Screens was born, a program through which DCI advocates, educates and assists in connecting indie theaters with funding for a smoother technological transition to the digital world. In conjunction with the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, the Colorado Small Business Development Center Network, the Denver Film Society, the Gates Foundation and Boettcher Foundation, DCI hopes to keep rural theaters alive.
"What happened was, about a year ago a couple of our communities -- the city of Brush in particular -- came to us and said, you know, we don't exactly know what we should do. We have a theater on our main street and it is supposed to convert to digital projectors, and we don't know how we're going to do it," says Katherine Correll, executive director of Downtown Colorado Inc.
With a small staff of just two people, DCI works with communities across Colorado to preserve city centers and downtown areas through a variety of means. The Digital Cinema Projection transition was an issue right up DCI's alley -- with many small towns, a movie theater is often the biggest attraction on a main street. Without an operational cinema, many of these towns were looking at losing out on the foot traffic that theaters bring, along with the prospect of a vacant building -- which never bodes well for surrounding businesses, not to mention the theater itself.
"The Sands in Brush is the theater that really brought this to our attention," says Correll. "When you think about it, that theater it is not just a business -- it is at gathering place, it is a cultural activity, it is the thing that keeps the kids and families there on Saturday night, instead of driving to the next biggest town. It is really important cultural piece of all of our communities in Colorado -- even looking in Denver at the Mayan Theatre or the Esquire, some of these older theaters. They really do play an important role in in our communities. But in these smaller, rural areas, it is the thing to do. It is the thing, and they only have that one thing. It's like losing the post office or the grocery store; it is key to the survival of that community."
Colorado film commissioner Donald Zuckerman echoes Correll's concerns. "Everybody feels that if you're a small town and you're lucky enough to have a theater -- usually it's a historic theater -- and it is the centerpiece of your downtown and you can't get product, a number of things are going to happen," he shares. "You're probably going to close -- and what kind of effect will that have on the other small businesses in that downtown? They could start to shutter, one by one, and all of a sudden you have an abandoned downtown.
"The other thing is that it's hard for these communities to keep their young kids there, anyway," he continues. "If you've got a teenager, do you want them driving forty miles to the neighboring town to watch a movie on a Friday night or Saturday night? Probably not. It becomes dangerous. Everybody just universally felt that it was something that necessary." Working together, these groups are now offering a Rural Digital Theater Conversion Grant, providing anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 to aid each of these small theaters in the change-over. Through Save Our Screens, DCI is connecting rural cinemas to this funding, while supporting them in fundraising the matching money needed to qualify for the grants.
"As an organization, we have three roles: first, we do advocacy. We look at all of our member communities, we identify what their needs are and then we help to advocate, though we don't officially lobby," says Correll. "We also do educational events -- we recently had a theater summit where we talked a little bit about cultural facilities and how sometimes these facilities aren't profit-makers, but they draw foot traffic. They draw such an important asset to the community and that's something that these communities have to get behind, regardless of if they are bringing in money.
"Then, we do technical assistance -- we go out and visit communities and really look at overall health and how (a theater) centers in a downtown area. We meet with the elected officials and the staff of the town or city, the business owners, the residents and what I refer to as non-profits and other service providers like libraries, museums, rotary clubs and school districts. We meet with all of the stakeholders in what we call a 'downtown assessment,'" she explains.
"We try to help communities streamline things -- with much of Colorado, we'll talk to people and they'll say, 'We don't want any growth.' But in the end, it's like, it's going to happen. So you can either hold on to the things that you love -- like these movie theaters -- or you can let growth take you over. That's kind of our mantra."
Correll calls much of what DCI does "handholding" -- describing the resources available to smaller theaters, walking them through the grant process and, perhaps most important, explaining how to develop an online presence. "Many of these people (the theater operators) don't even use e-mail," she says.
Save Our Screens recently created its own online campaign through Facebook, where DCI updates and shares information about these rural theaters and the progress toward digital conversion. There is also a detailed page of resources on the DCI website.
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This Sunday, November 24, the Sands Theatre in Brush will host Save Our Sands, a matinee screening and fundraiser to help raise money to qualify for the Rural Digital Theater Conversion Grant. For more information on all nineteen of the theaters being assisted by the Save Our Screens initiative or to donate directly, visit Downtown Colorado Inc.'s homepage or sign up for the SOS newsletter.