Could America lose her remaining grand movie palaces?

A tweet from Mod Betty alerted me to this article about the fate of old movie theatres, affectionately known to their fans as, and originally designed to be, “movie

The restored Palace Theatre in Crossville, Tennesse, was lovingly restored by the townspeople after suffering decades of neglect. This Art Deco beauty is now surely the jewel in this small town’s crown!

palaces”, with the advent of digital film. The clicking and whirring movie projectors most of us are familiar with are on their way out—some to the scrap heap, others (I dearly hope) to museums.

The enormous projectors being replaced with new digital projectors capable of screening digital, not 35mm, film—digital, of course, offering a much crisper image. I imagine this is a space saver, too, as stacks of reels—to say nothing
of nearly automobile-sized projectors—will no longer be necessary. Moreover, it will save both the movie studios and theatres money—according to this MovieFone article, studios will save about one billion dollars a year when all they’ll need to do is send movies to theatres with a click of the computer mouse.

Now, though I rarely see movies in theatres anymore, for a variety of reasons, I am of course a big fan of a better picture and more economical way of getting movies to viewers. But this change from 35mm to digital could have unforeseen side effects. For one thing, the marvellous and beautiful movie palaces, built in the early parts of the twentieth century—many of them (like the Redford) rescued from demolition or simply the slow death of neglect and deterioration—could once again find themselves on the endangered places list.

With the future of motion pictures headed quickly toward an all-digital format played only on pricey new equipment, will the theaters be around? Or will they be done in by the digital revolution that will soon render inadequate the projectors that have flickered and ticked with a little-changed technology for more than 120 years?“Our guess is by the end of 2013 there won’t be any film distributed anymore,” said John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Association of Theater Owners.

Sparta's Oldham Theatre at night

Originally the Rivoli Theatre when it opened in the 1930s, Sparta, Tennessee’s Deco-Moderne movie palace was renamed the Oldham at some point. Unfortunately, though the splendid marquee and Art Deco facade remain, it is no longer a movie theatre.

This may not sound like that big a deal, but this technological shift could harm the vintage theatres that have been showing first-run films, especially if they don’t have live shows, like many old theatres do, or survive by showing classic films exclusively. Drive-in theatres are in danger, too. Replacing the original film projector can cost $70,000-$80,000 a screen—not a terrible hit for your local megaplex, but for the small, independent theatre, particularly the movie palace variety that may only have two or three screens, it’s a big hit indeed, and one that might be utterly insurmountable for many. A weather-safe digital projector for your local drive-in can cost about $150,000.

Not only that, but the cost of upgrading the theatres’ electrical systems in order to accommodate the new equipment is high as well—and all of this is money, notes Palace Theatre (Buffalo, NY) board member Phil Czarnecki, that could be used to continue work on the restoration of the usually ornate theatres. Continue reading