Youth from the Raquette Lake Girls Camp line up to get tickets to watch a movie at the Palace Theater in Lake Placid.
Small, local movie theaters are seeking funds that will keep them from becoming extinct.
During the July 16 meeting of the Essex County Finance, Tax Reduction and Mandate Relief Committee, board chairman Randy Douglas of Jay asked supervisors to support a consolidated funding application on behalf of the Adirondack Film Society.
“It affects all the small movie theaters in all our small towns like Schroon Lake, Au Sable Forks, Queensbury and Lake Placid,” Douglas said. “All the big movie corporations have given the movie theaters 12 to 18 months to convert all to digital. There will be no movies at these theaters without the conversion, so they are applying as a group.”
Along with the theaters Douglas mentioned, the grant also applies to the State Theater in Tupper Lake, the Indian Lake Theater and the Strand Theater in Plattsburgh.
“It has a huge effect on Main Street America, on the small towns as we try and do things to improve our local downtowns,” Douglas added. “These are hubs in our communities throughout the North Country.”
Douglas said that the group was receiving help from Naj Wikoff, who is doing the application for the consolidated grant.
“It’s not just about changing the projectors over to digital technology; you also have to modify the sound systems as well and really, you need to get better screens,” Wikoff said. “The point was really driven home during a discussion at the Lake Placid Film Festival when these local theaters came together.”
Wikoff said that the goal of the Adirondack Film Society was not only to help small theaters convert, but to help them thrive.
“What we want to do is not only raise the money to help them survive but help them own these projectors outright to get them into a position where they have a better chance to succeed,” he said. “These people often have another job, and they should be able to make a living off of these theaters.”
Douglas later said that he has already been working with local representatives to push for funding for these local theaters to make the conversion.
“I have been in contact with all of our local representatives and federal senators on the matter,” Douglas said. “There were some that did not even know that this was going on.”
Trouble in the ‘Hollywood’
In a letter to Sen. Chuck Schumer, Douglas wrote that for the Hollywood Theater in Au Sable Forks, they were looking at a conversion price tag for their two screens of around $160,000.
“This expense will be unreachable for them as a small business,” Douglas said. “Cory and Sierra (Hanf, owners) used a portion of the $200,000 matching grant secured by the town through the Office of Community Renewal to restore their marquee and other needed improvements. (These funds) to improve their theater and help to revitalize our downtown would now be undermined.”
“If we do not convert, we will not be able to show any movies at all,” Sierra Hanf said. “By the end of next year, there will be no more 35mm film. It will all be digital. We have been told we have to convert or we will have no movies at all.”
Hanf said that the general thought among movie companies that she has talked to is that the digital transition will come after the 2013 summer movie season, but before the holiday movie season.
“It is estimated that the change will be fully done by November of 2013,” she said. “Then, there will be no choice, you don’t have digital abilities, you have to close.”
Hanf said that they are hoping that the grant will be able to help them convert.
“If we do not get this grant, there will not be enough time to get another one,” she said. “People have asked us about getting a loan, but a theater like ours would never be able to make that loan back unless we started charging what the big theaters do, and we will not do that.”
Hanf also said that the movie companies pushing for the changeover are only focused on the major movie carriers.
“If all of us little guys go out of business, the big guys do not care,” she said. “We make up one percent of one percent of their revenues. They are forcing us into this and it is not fair.”
Glen Drive-In owner Brett Gardner said that it would cost even more money two convert two outdoor projection systems.
“We are looking at about 170,000 or more to make the change,” Gardner said. “That is just for the projectors. You are not even talking about the renovations to the projector rooms and air conditioning that will be needed, which will be another big cost.”
Gardner said that he had also heard many concerns voiced about problems with the digital technology for drive-ins.
“No drive-in wants to switch to digital,” he said. “This is being pushed down our throats.”
“We need to update or just not be in business because there will be no film,” Barbara Clark, who runs the Palace Theater with her husband, Reginald, said.
The Palace Theater has more screens than any of the other small local theaters with four. Clark said that for many in the Tri-Lakes, the Palace is the only chance they have to see a first-run movie.
“There are some families that would not be able to make the drive to Plattsburgh or somewhere else because you are asking them to pay for the travel and gas and then pay for the movie and whatever else they want to get,” she said. “We always have a free movie here at the theater around Christmas and for some, that is the one movie they see all year.”
The Strand Theater in Schroon Lake, which has one screen, is also part of the grant application.
The theater is owned by Larry and Liz McNamara, and is one the host of the annual Christmas celebration, playing a movie for children.
“All of the film companies have been sending out letters bout the changeover,” McNamara said. “It will cost us about $100,000 to do the one. We have talked about what we are going to do, should we be a little, independent theater or should we just go ahead and shut down.”
McNamara said that the grant is key for the theater to continue to offer films.
“If we do not get the grant, then I don’t know what to do,” he said. “Nobody is happy about this unless you are one of the giant multiplexes that have a ton of money.”
Sally Strasser of the State Theater in Tupper Lake said that the grant would be the main source of funding that would be needed to keep the theater open.
“The profit margin for a theater like ours is very narrow,” she said. “Most of us small theater owners do it more for the love of movies and not for the money. These are mom-and-pop operations that can’t make that kind of money back if we were to take out a loan.”
Strasser also said that she was concerned that the new policies seem to hurt small-town theaters.
“A lot of these programs have been set up and have been done for the multiplexes,” she said.
Indian Lake Theater woes
Danielle Shaw, executive director of the Indian Lake Theater, said that getting the grant would ensure that a vein of the community can remain open.
“We are a non-profit community theater and for us, we like to be seen as a community resource in general,” Shaw said. “We have a lot of activities here other than movies and if we were forced to close, it is not just closing the theater for movies but as a community gathering space.”
Shaw added that she wanted to make sure that people knew what was happening with the small local theaters.
“We need to band together and give people the idea of how these communities will be affected if the theaters close,” she said. “That is what this group is doing and we saw this grant application as an opportunity to get some help with the digital conversion.”
Plattsburgh Strand Plan
According to Leigh Mundy, the Strand Theater in Plattsburgh is also seeking their own grant along with the consolidated grant to help enter the digital age.
Mundy said that the change does add to the costs needed to renovate the theater, it would not be the only option.
“We will have local theater, graduations and other events,” she said. “With the Strand, we will grow into whatever we need to grow into, but I expect that film will be a big part of it.”