Film snakes around the projection booth of the Parkway Discount Cinema in Warner Robins, Georgia. Theater manager Alicia Bowers is in the booth. She has a love/hate relationship with film these days.
“Run too fast and it will throw the film to the ground,” Bowers says, “or if they’re moving it from one platter to another – if they drop it, it’s a big pile of mess.”
By contrast, a digital blockbuster is delivered on a six-inch by four-inch hard drive. When you drop it, there’s a thud, but no mess.
The Parkway’s run is coming to an end this summer. It’s closing, rather than converting to digital.
Bill Stembler, CEO of the Georgia Theater Company, says the reason is pretty simple: “It’s questionable whether you could recover your investment. It’s something like $50,000 to $70,000 a screen to convert to digital.”
Stembler says when you do the math for a 16-screen multiplex, you get the picture.
Luckily, the movie studios have a solution. They offer theaters a subsidy called Virtual Print Fees. Every time you buy a ticket at the multiplex at what the studios call full price, the studios pay to help retire a piece of the theater’s digital debt.
“The film companies are basically paying for about 80 to 85 percent of our cost to be digital,” Stembler says.
But this equation doesn’t work for discount screens. The studios take about a 60 percent cut out of every ticket sold. At full ticket price, that adds up. It doesn’t work at the dollar theater.
“They don’t care about the discount theaters,” Stembler says.
So how do Virtual Print Fees work at your local arthouse theater? Sara Beresford is a board member at Ciné, an independent theater in Athens, GA. She says the arthouse is a different beast.
“I think for a lot of the arthouse cinema operators there were too many strings attached to that agreement,” Stembler says.
Remember, Virtual Print Fees come with studio demands about which movies will be shown. Arthouse operators like their independence.
Back at the Parkway Discount Cinema, Alicia Bowers has reset the film for the next show.
“You know, it’s rewarding to get it up on the screen and seeing it play... it’s definitely a nostalgic feeling. It moves, it bounces,” Bowers says.
But film lovers only have a little time left to indulge that nostalgia. One studio, Paramount, no longer distributes film prints at all.