PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Patrons of the Braden Theater may have noticed a difference in their viewing experience over the past couple months, thanks to a major upgrade the facility underwent last fall that now allows the playing of digital movies.
“About 10,000 theaters nationwide have been affected by the transition to digital from 35mm films. Many have to struggle along as long as 35mm is still available,” said Arlen Dow, co-owner.
Dow said the change would not have been possible for him, had it not been for the Virtual Print Fee program.
“The program is only available to theaters that meet certain guidelines, including ticket sales. The Braden met the criteria, while the Caribou theater did not,” he said.
Kim Paradis, owner of the Century Theater in Fort Kent, said her facility won’t be able to upgrade, due to lower ticket sales.
“We have trouble getting first-run movies, even after six weeks. We’re all in the same boat — trying to help each other out,” said Paradis, who regularly makes trips to pick up movies from Dow, rather than pay the extra shipping fee to receive them in Fort Kent.
Dow said prior to the change, which was completed in early November, he too was “having trouble getting kids’ movies and movies in general.”
“We may end up being the only theater north of Orono with digital equipment,” he said.
Under the Virtual Print Fee program, theaters that qualify pay approximately $60,000 over a period of several years, rather than having to come up with the money all at once. For the Braden, that translates to about a $200,000 upgrade the Dows won’t have to come up with all at once. This is a film industry program that refunds up to 80 percent of the cost to theater owners, but the payments are made gradually through fees based on the number of movies shown. To qualify for the help, theaters must have certain profit levels and show a minimum number of films, leaving many small operators without help.
“There are about 10,000 small screens that will be going out of business due to the shift to digital, due to ticket sales not being high enough to qualify for the program,” said Dow. “Soon they won’t be making any more 35mm films, leaving those theaters struggling to get movies. Now it takes six to eight weeks to get 35mm but eventually you won’t be able to get it.”
Paradis said she’s not sure what the future holds for her theater.
“The equipment itself is $60,000, then you have upgrade fees and other costs,” she said.
“It’s not like you can charge more for tickets. People will only pay so much,” added Dow.
Dow said there’s a big difference between digital and 35mm.
“The quality of digital is different — much better. With 35mm, you have 24 frames per second, but with digital you have 30 frames a second. After 35mm runs a couple hundred times, you get scratches on the prints, they get blurry. With digital, movie officials claim you can run them a couple thousand times,” said Dow.
He said for now he’s not too concerned about not being able to upgrade his Caribou facility.
“We’ve got good ticket sales and community support; we’ll survive. The Braden is doing well for itself,” Dow said.
Paradis, on the other hand, expressed doubts about her theater’s future.
“I’m not sure about Fort Kent. I don’t know how to keep going if we can’t come up with the money to upgrade. I’ve been looking into the possibility of grants and loans, but that’s a slim chance at the moment,” Paradis said.
Dow said some communities are working with their theaters to bring digital to reality.
“Some towns, like Pittsfield, I’ve heard are coming up with tax breaks and holding fundraisers to help,” he said.
Paradis said this “could be the death of smaller movie theaters.”
Dow said while Europe and China seem to favor movies on disk, Americans “still enjoy the theater experience.” That was one of the main reasons the Dows purchased and refurbished the historic downtown theater.
“We bought the old theater, renovated it — put in new floors, in-floor heating, three screens,” said Dow, noting he and his family, “love the interaction with the public.”
Dow said while the projection system has changed, he’s still able to use much of his older equipment, including the sound system.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of sales options for the 35mm equipment. Theaters undergoing the change to digital are basically sending the old equipment to the scrap metal dealer,” said Dow.
Dow said it costs movie companies less to produce and ship digital films, however that savings won’t be passed along to theaters.
“There’ll be no cut to our costs. We pay a percentage of ticket sales — 55-65 percent of each ticket goes back to the movie company,” he said.
Paradis said she has been limited to one film a week and is only open Friday through Sunday.
“We had to close Monday-Thursday. There just weren’t enough moviegoers to justify staying open those days,” said Paradis. “I’ll do my best to get something together. If spring comes and they quit making 35mm film, I may have to close down.”
Dow said he hopes to keep the Caribou theater open.
“I hope I don’t have to shut down. With seven screens [between Presque Isle and Caribou], I’m able to book almost any movie. Contract movies run four weeks,” said Dow, noting his “only hope in Caribou is if used equipment comes along, so I can pick it up cheaper. You can only buy it through the companies — like Sony, Barko, etc. Beginning this year, Texas Instruments is supposed to have a chip that can be used to adapt equipment.”
Since the upgrade, Braden customers have been able to enjoy some of the year’s biggest releases, including the latest episode in the “Twilight” series, James Bond “Skyfall” and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
For information or if anyone would like to help raise funds for either the Fort Kent or Caribou theaters’ upgrades, call Paradis at 834-4242 or Dow at 769-9652.