By Tom McDonald
Most small-town county seats have them — once attractive single-screen movie theaters, with a 35mm projector room in the balcony and a neon-lighted marquee outside.
Once upon a time they were entertainment centerpieces in their communities, and in some instances they still are.
A lot of them are long gone, having succumbed to competition from multiplexes and home entertainment centers. Others, however, have held on and continue to show first-run movies to small-town audiences fortunate enough to still have a local theater.
But thanks to the digital age — and the moviemaking industry — this little piece of Americana is about to disappear altogether for a lot of small towns.
About a decade ago, studios began using digital technology to make their films. Not only are the picture and sound better, digital copies are also a lot cheaper to make than 35mm film.
Not surprisingly, when the change came the deep-pocketed multiplexes bought in immediately.
Not so for the smaller community theaters, which found it too costly to convert. Instead, they held on to their 35mm operations — and managed to survive that way by purchasing the first-run movies as 35mm films.
In my Las Vegas hometown here in New Mexico, our one remaining downtown theater, the Kiva, closed its doors a few weeks ago. And to make matters worse, on the outskirts of town the Fort Union Drive-in — one of only two remaining drive-in theaters in the state — may not be able to open for its upcoming summer season.
Jeanna DiLucchio, the drive-in’s owner, says she needs at least $60,000 to convert to digital, and she doesn’t have it.
Maybe such closings are inevitable. Movie theaters, after all, are in a competitive business environment, where survival goes to the fittest. But it’s still sad to see.
I’ve read about how some companies are offering generous financing packages to help theaters afford the new digital projectors, but paying back any kind of loan would be tough for a theater that doesn’t typically have high-volume ticket sales — and that’s just about every small-town theater out there.
I hope these theater owners and their supporters can think of something. Downtown retail establishments are already a threatened species in small towns; take away one of their most attractive features and extinction might just be around the corner.
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. Contact him at: