Iconic theaters change with the times

Decades-old venues such as the Roxy in Eatonville are undergoing expensive upgrades

kari.plog@thenewstribune.comJuly 8, 2013 

Mike Wood, co-owner of the Roxy Theatre in Eatonville, programs a new set of previews and features into a new digital projector and server. Aging theaters like the Roxy have been forced to switch from 35 mm film to a digital format to keep pace with Hollywood and larger cinemas that are capturing customers.

PETER HALEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For now, the popcorn pops and movie magic continues at the Roxy Theatre on Mashell Avenue in Eatonville.

The decades-old, single-screen movie house has switched to digital format as Hollywood quickly moves away from 35 mm film, which the Roxy formerly supported.

Now, instead of delivering heavy canisters of film, studios ship hard drives and email digital “keys” that allow the Roxy — and other digitally supported theaters — to access their movies.

With high-tech software in its place, the Roxy’s old film equipment sits in storage, swiftly becoming obsolete.

“I hate to say it but it is scrap metal, unfortunately,” said Mike Wood, one of the theater’s owners.

After coming up with the money for the switch, Wood said the biggest challenge was learning the new system.

“It is all computerized now,” he said. “The new equipment has nice features.”

Film reels were more labor-intensive, Wood said.

Before the transition in May, he and his crew would have to lug several rolls of film up the stairs to the projection room — sometimes a cargo of 50 to 60 pounds depending on the length of the movie. After that, it took about an hour to set up the film and another hour to break it down.

With digital movies, Wood said the manual labor has been reduced to about 10 or 15 minutes. Once they have the digital key, staff upload the movie to a server, build a timeline with trailers and set the showtimes to start automatically on a schedule. Wood can even control the projector from an app on his cellphone.

“Everybody seems to enjoy it, and it is a lot less work for us,” he said.

In addition to simplified delivery, the digital switch also makes for higher-quality viewing with improved sound and picture.

“The sound is just phenomenal now. I thought we had good sound before, but now we really have good sound,” Wood said. “It is a really sharp, clear, crisp picture and that isn’t going to change from the first show to the last show.”

Switching to digital wasn’t easy for the Roxy.

In October last year, a committee formed to help raise $70,000 for the transition, an amount Wood said fluctuated as equipment companies released newer cost estimates.

Although the amount reduced slightly over time, the Roxy still struggled to reach its goal.

Wood said a campaign with the online fundraising site Kickstarter.com went nowhere, raising just $1,700 of the $20,000 goal.

Finally, by mid-April, the theater raised about $35,000, the bulk of which came from the sale of personalized seat plaques at about $300 apiece.

Wood said the $35,000 was enough money to seek financing to cover the rest of the cost, something that wasn’t an option when fundraising first started.

The Roxy first opened in 1942 and ceased operations from the late 1970s until the 1990s, when Wood bought and remodeled the theater with partners Dean Waddle and Ken Kerr.

Waddle said the movie industry has changed a lot, for better and worse, during his tenure.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” he said.

The new technology is wonderful, Waddle said, but the struggles of independent theaters remain the same — fewer people going to the movies and increased competition with profitable multiplexes that offer more choices.

“Deep down inside, I am actually kind of scared,” Waddle said. “The small independents are dropping like flies around the country.”

The struggle to stay open during the industry’s first major technological shift in a century has been felt all around Pierce County.

The Grand Cinema, one of two community theaters in Tacoma, is awaiting another $60,000 for its $344,000 digital transition, said Executive Director Philip Cowan. That is the equivalent of upgrading one of its four screens. The switch will happen all at once as soon as funding is secured, he said.

Although fundraising has been a challenge, Cowan said, it has shown the Grand’s importance to longtime moviegoers in the community.

“People have been so incredibly supportive,” he said. “It’s been rewarding in a way I wasn’t expecting.”

With the possibility of matching contributions coming up, Cowan said he is confident the Grand’s goal will be met by fall.

Earlier this year, the 89-year-old Blue Mouse Theatre in Tacoma’s Proctor neighborhood raised more than $75,000 on Kickstarter.com.

Those funds allowed the Blue Mouse to completely convert to digital with an acoustic upgrade in April, said manager Sue Evans.

Despite all the changes and struggles, Waddle said the movies still allow people to escape everyday life and he hopes people continue to support theaters — especially independent ones — to keep that experience alive.

“I hope (the Roxy) stays here forever, but that’s not for me to decide,” he said. “It’s up to society. It will be here as long as the public supports it.”

kari.plog@thenewstribune.com @KariPlog

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