After 55 years, Homer's historic movie theater switching from 35mm film to digital cinema

Homer Theatre programming manager Colleen Carroll, left, and Robin Daugherty, right, operations manager, model the glasses used to view 3-D films while sitting in front of the 53-year-old movie theater in Homer, Alaska on Sept. 22, 2011. After 55 years, thousands of miles of 35mm film and a projector that faithfully clicked out images at the rate of 24 frames per second, the Homer Theatre joined 15,000 other North American movie theaters in a technological revolution that's changing the industry. Homer's single-screen theater went digital. (AP Photo/Homer News, Michael Armstrong)

HOMER — After 55 years, thousands of miles of 35mm film and a projector that faithfully clicked out images at the rate of 24 frames per second, last Friday at 6 p.m. with the first showing of “The Help,” the Homer Theatre joined 15,000 other North American movie theaters in a technological revolution that’s changing the industry.


Homer’s single-screen theater went digital.

Last Monday, to commemorate the end of an era, the theater passed out strips of movie film. From Tuesday to Thursday the theater shut down as a crew from Encore Technical pulled out the old 1980s era Ballantine-Strong film projector and installed an NEC NC200C digital projector. Workers put up a new silver screen — yes, it’s actually silver — and Encore technicians Scott Eales and Jason Blackmon made the final adjustments. Thursday afternoon the theater did a test run, including 3-D trailers.

Compared to film, digital movies look sharp and bright, with no scratches and breaks. “Better than 35 mm” was the standard digital had to meet to get acceptance in the industry, said Homer Theatre owner Jamie Sutton.

And in 3-D? Wearing special glasses, watching 3-D can be like a roller-coaster ride. Fasten your seat belts, pilgrims. A trailer for next summer’s Spiderman movie, for example, shows Spidey climbing skyscrapers and then swinging down into vast urban canyons, the ground rushing up. Urp.

Being able to show 3-D movies is one of the reasons the Homer Theatre converted to digital. Other reasons include:

—Being able to show any form of digital entertainment, including “Live from the Met” operas and special television broadcasts.

“Going digital opens up so many more opportunities,” said theater programming manager Colleen Carroll.

—Lower shipping costs. A 35mm film is seven or eight reels that weighs about 50 pounds and costs studios $2,000 a print. At the test run last Thursday, operations manager Robin Daugherty held up a digital “print” that is about the size of an old VHS tape and costs about $100.

“They’re just shipping up a hard drive in a cigar box,” Sutton said.

The 465-gigabyte hard drive comes encrypted, with a special electronic key sent to theaters to play it. About 35 digital prints can be downloaded on the theater’s server.

But the biggest reason to go digital is technological change. By 2014, major studios will no longer ship 35mm to exhibitors, Sutton said.

Sutton made the decision to convert last spring after attending a National Association of Theater Owners meeting.

“It became apparent that digital had arrived, and the technologies that had been somewhat experimental had settled in and there was an industry standard on which you could rely,” he said.

Including the cost of a new screen necessary for 3-D, Sutton invested $113,000 in converting to digital. Major studios want theaters to convert to digital. To help exhibitors finance the conversion, theaters that convert get paid a VPF, or virtual print fee. Studios and filmmakers that produce digital prints pay the VPF that goes back to theaters. Sutton said he’ll get about $200 a week, paid quarterly. Some financing comes through third-party vendors that process the VPF. Sutton financed the Homer Theatre’s conversion through a bank loan.

The chance to see new releases sooner helped push Sutton to make the conversion. Some Homer residents don’t mind waiting, Sutton said.

“I resist that notion,” he said. “In the extent that Homer seeks to engage in that national cultural dialogue, it would be better if we could show the stuff currently. That’s my deal. That’s the ambition.”

One change Homer Theatre customers also will see is Preflix, a 15-minute show before the movie starts. Made up of national movie content, it includes spaces that could be used for local advertising, including nonprofit spots. Movie trailers follow, either trailers attached to that night’s film or “Trail Mix,” a selection of upcoming films.

The advertising is an experiment, Sutton said.

“We’re going to try that out for six months and see if it works,” he said.

Businesses can learn about the new advertising program and the digital conversion when the Homer Theatre holds the October Homer Chamber of Commerce mixer from 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 20. The theater offers free popcorn and soda, a presentation about digital cinema and a 3-D film showing.

The Homer premiere of 3-D — at least with the latest technology — is 8 p.m. Friday, with the showing of Werner Herzog’s film about ancient paintings in a cave in France, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” for the Eighth Annual Documentary Film Festival (see story, page X). There’s an irony to that, Sutton said.

“We are using mankind’s most modern and advanced technological art form to show a movie about mankind’s oldest art from, this 32,000-year-old drawings in these caves in France,” Sutton said. “It’s kind of a fascinating juxtaposition, and kind of a fun way to introduce 3-D.”


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