The Falconer

The plight of the small-town movie theater

Stephen French and Jadi Wright, Staff Writers

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Now that an overwhelming majority of movies are being shot digitally, it has become a financial burden for studios to convert digital prints back to 35mm film for non-digital projectors. As a result, thousands of independently owned theaters have had to upgrade their equipment.

It’s not such a tall order for corporate chains, such as Regal Cinemas and Carmike, but for small theaters, it can be a death sentence. Digital projectors often cost tens of thousands of dollars — and if they can’t afford it? According to John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, it’s “convert or die.”.

Thankfully, theaters in our area have been able to make the switch. As of 2016, both the Family Drive-In Theater and the Woodstock Community Theatre have been outfitted with digital projectors, allowing them to show a wider selection of movies at a significantly lower cost.

As for those unable to convert, they’re likely to fade away — empty reminders of a once-local industry, artificially selected into oblivion. 

Some filmmakers, such as Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Django: Unchained) and Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel) refuse to shoot digitally, using only 35mm film. Conceivably, this will force some fans to seek out and support theaters still outfitted with non-digital projectors. 

Noble though their efforts may be, they’re modest at best and have already been undermined by larger theater corporations.

Chains like the Alamo Drafthouse have made sure to keep one or two 35mm projectors in operation. That way, if directors like Tarantino or Anderson release a film non-digitally, they have their bases covered. In fact, they stand to make even more money by using the analog projectors for “special events,” banking on the novelty of seeing a movie shown on film rather than digital. 

Meanwhile, small theaters drop like flies — in part, perhaps, from sheer irony. 

Still, the fact of the matter is this: As a society, we’ve passed the point of no return, and even if we could turn back the clock, it wouldn’t be a good idea to do it. This is how the United States economy is designed to work. Ways and means present themselves, and if they’re more cost-effective than what is currently in place, they’ll become the paradigm.

The transition between old and new is always difficult. For many communities, it has meant the loss of their local movie theaters, some of which have been in operation since the silent era — a fate which Shenandoah County could easily have met. However, by some stroke of luck, both the Drive-In and the Woodstock Community Theatre got by unscathed. 

So, the next time you visit either one, take a moment after the lights go down and before the movie starts — in that moment of silent darkness — to really appreciate where you are.

Then, sit back and enjoy the show. 

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The plight of the small-town movie theater