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As theaters struggle, Colorado coalition steps in

Monday - 4/7/2014, 5:02pm  ET

In this April 4, 2014 photo, projectionist Randall Harper operates one of the digital cinema projectors at the three-screen SIE Film Center, a movie theater run by the Denver Film Society, in Denver. As movie theaters small and large are increasingly obliged to upgrade their systems from actual film to expensive digital movie projection, Denver Film Society, the Gates Family Foundation and others are offering grants to small-town locally owned theaters so they can afford the transition. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

DONNA BRYSON
Associated Press

DENVER (AP) -- The Grand Theater in the southeastern Colorado town of Rocky Ford is the only cinema showing 3-D movies in the 150 miles between Pueblo and Kansas -- thanks to volunteer fundraising that allowed it to buy an $84,000 state-of-the-art projector to show digital films.

That may have turned out well, but the ending isn't so happy for countless small, independent theaters that have fed dreams and anchored main streets in small towns across America.

Hollywood is going digital, and movie houses soon won't be able to find 35mm films to show. A Colorado coalition is working to help -- and in the process support small towns, where people who see a movie stay to eat at the restaurant down the street and shop in the nearby stores.

Major movie studios began the switch to digital at the turn of this century, and the transition is expected to be complete, with all movies distributed to theaters only on hard drive, by the end of this year. While the studios save copying and distribution costs, digital projectors can cost more than some small theaters earn in a year.

A nonprofit has kept the Grand Theater going for more than 20 years as a place for movies and live theater, concerts, dances and town meetings. Terri Kitch, a retired teacher who is on the nonprofit's board, said that the community service foundation allowed volunteers to quickly raise the $84,000 for her town of about 4,000.

Since the Grand made the switch four summers ago, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and the Boettcher and Gates Family foundations have begun offering grants to help other theaters convert to digital. They also ask them to raise funds themselves to replicate the sustainable community spirit Rocky Ford exemplifies.

The Denver Film Society, a private group of cinephiles, reviews applications and provides technical support to the theaters selected to receive funds. Downtown Colorado, a nonprofit development organization, reached out to theaters to explain how to seek state and other assistance, and what it might mean to convert from a commercial enterprise to a nonprofit organization.

"I haven't heard anything as brilliant" as Colorado's public-private-foundation solution, said Mike Hurley, who owns small theaters in Maine and consults for other theater owners across the country.

Donald Zuckerman, whose state film office is a division of the Colorado Office of Economic Development, recalls a 2012 meeting about digital projection at Boettcher, one of Colorado's oldest charitable foundations. Tim Schultz, the foundation's president and executive director, hosted that meeting.

"These small towns want to keep the screen alive," Schultz said.

Beth Conover, senior program officer at the Gates Family Foundation, said trustees at Gates -- founded by a Denver family that made its fortune in industrial and automotive parts, not computer software -- were a bit skeptical at first.

"If you haven't seen a pattern or thought about it, it could sound like a one-off, funky idea," she said.

Gates ended up earmarking $120,000 for the project and Boettcher $80,000 with an initial goal of helping 16 theaters. A state pool of $200,000 was also established, Zuckerman said. Grant-giving began in 2013. As the first year was ending, Gates trustees approved another $65,000 with the goal of helping three more theaters convert.

One beneficiary is the adobe-brown Fox theater on Main Street in the southern Colorado town of Walsenburg, population 3,000. Its giant letters spell out "Fox" flanked by art deco columns.

The theater, built in 1917, had been closed for years when George Birrer and other volunteers began running it as a nonprofit arts center in 1992. Weekend movie proceeds went largely to pay off $160,000 in loans to reopen what Birrer called "the heart of the town."

Then came word of the need to change the projection system, at an estimated cost of $80,000.

Years went by as they searched for a solution, all the while hearing from distributors that they soon would be unable to get movies.

Ultimately, The Fox got $20,000 from Gates, $5,000 from Boettcher and $6,000 from the state. Local volunteers raised more, including $25,000 through a letter-writing campaign that targeted every household in Huerfano County. Another $25,000 came from a U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development program.

"What other thing do you have in this town?" Birrer said of The Fox. "We don't have anything else for young people."

Ryan Oestreich, director of the film society's screening complex in Denver, spent hours on the phone with Birrer and other small theater owners. Once a digital projector is chosen and installed, its automatic functions can make life easier. But the initial decisions about resolution and other specifications and whether to 3-D or not 3-D can seem overwhelming.

Oestreich cautions theater owners to pay a little extra in annual fees for continuing technical support.

Tom Botelho, the society's executive director, said now that connections have been made, new partnerships could emerge, with theaters outside Denver showing films the society brings to Colorado for festivals.

Botelho said: "We build community through film."


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