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The Palace Theater in Lake Placid, late on a Saturday night. Photos: Natasha Haverty
The Palace Theater in Lake Placid, late on a Saturday night. Photos: Natasha Haverty

The Last Picture Show? The future of small movie theaters in the North Country

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The last decade or so, the North Country has seen a rebirth of its small-town movie theaters. Screens from Tupper Lake to Indian Lake to Ausable Forks have reopened. From Canton to Old Forge, small cinemas are often a big part of the local nightlife, offering a spark of light and glitz.

But the movie industry is changing, shifting fast from old-fashioned film projectors to new, high-tech digital systems. As Natasha Haverty reports, the price tag for that conversion is high and some North Country theater owners worry they might not survive the transition.

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Piles of film outside a Palace projection room.

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Natasha Haverty
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It’s Saturday night at the Palace Theater in Lake Placid, and people are lined up out the door to buy tickets for the last screenings of the night. The Palace Theater was built in 1926. Its ornate ceilings and massive theater organ earned it another name: Pride of the Great North Woods.

Reg Clark worked here when he was a kid in the forties and fifties. He says: “In those days you had to be a ticket-taker, and a projectionist, and a janitor.”

In 1961, a year after Reg married his wife Barb, the theater went up for sale, and Reg convinced Barb to buy the theater with him. Barb jokes that that argument almost bought him a divorce: “I’m gonna buy a theater, you got any money. That’s the way it went.”

Reg and Barb stayed married, and ever since one or the other of them has stood most nights at the door of the theater greeting moviegoers. Reg always shows up at the theater in his suit and tie. He said “I have fathers come in with their kids, and they say ‘son, you see that man? When I was your age, he was taking tickets then.’ And I love it! It’s just a good feeling.”

But the Palace Theater may not be around for much longer. Small movie theaters like this have just 12 months, to convert all their equipment from the old film projectors like this one. The new equipment is all digital.

Soon, major hollywood studios will only be distributing their movies on computer hard drives.

As Barb puts it, “We’re going to call up our booker, who is the intermediate person to get us lined up with these films, and he’s going to say ‘I’m sorry there’s no more film.’”

So any theater that wants to be able to show blockbuster movies when they first come out, will have to acquire that digital technology. Each projector costs $100,000. For Clark's theater, with four screens, the price tag would be nearly half a million dollars.

Nelson Page, who took part in a discussion about the big change-over at the Lake Placid Film Forum this summer, declared“This will be the last summer of film. Period.”

Page, who runs several theaters around the Northeast, is vice chariman of the Adirondack Film Society, and is considered an expert on the history of cinema in the US, continued, “Within one year to eighteen months, film will cease to exist. The medium will be solely and exclusively digital. No longer film. There were five film laboratories in the last year. There’s only one now. That’s the future.”

When movie theaters first got their warning that this digital conversion was coming, Nelson scoffed at the idea: “I was the smart guy who said three years ago that this would never happen. Very cocksure, and I was wrong.”

But according to Nelson, the huge price tag to stay in the game will push a lot of small movie theaters out of the business: “The question is, how do small independent theater operators survive the conversion. Of going from film to digital. And the expense. Now, you’re saying, --there’s going to be an element of attrition here, there’s gonna be you know some thinning of the herd... So I’m thinking that between 20 and 25% of all the theaters in the US today will cease to exist in the next two years.”

Every small, independent theater in the North Country is at risk. Seventy five miles from the palace, the Indian Lake Theater in Hamilton County is a nonprofit. The village is remote and the theater is at the center of it. It already closed once four years ago. Then community members like Ben Strader worked to bring it back to life.

According to Strader, “It was clear to us that Hollywood doesn’t care about the single-screen small-town theater anymore, and it was going to go dark and never reopen--probably end up a storage center or something like that. And so we banded together and asked the community of they’d be willing to help us reopen the theater and run it year round as a community stage and screen.”

Strader’s Theater usually plays second run movies, movies that have been out for a few weeks already. He says there may not be a place for his kind of cinema in the new digital world, and even if there is, “Hollywood’s going to be less interested in helping us finance, because we’re small potatoes in their world.”

Sierra Hanth agrees. She owns the Hollywood Theater in Au Sable Forks in Essex County, which has closed and reopened repeatedly over the years. She says it would be heartbreaking if the industry doesn't find a way to keep these small town cinemas alive: “I think that something like that closing, you know all these kids are going to grow up and say ‘back when I had the movie theater,’ or ‘when I was little we had a movie theater in town but now you have to drive, you know an hour to go to the theater.’”

Out of the Lake Placid Film Forum came a decision to try to save the Palace and other theaters in the North country. Naj Wikoff, one of the co-founders of the Film Forum, has helped to develop a proposal to the Empire State Development Corporation for a $2.1-million grant. The money would buy digital projection equipment for 12 theaters, from the Strand in Old Forge to the Roxy in Potsdam, and give the theaters ownership of their equipment. Wikoff said, “I think it’s a matter of getting the word out that not only is the Palace threatened but the theaters around the region but also the nation is a threat.”

Hollywood studios are offering to finance the conversion for some small theaters across the country, but not all cinemas qualify and theater owners say they stand to lose control over the movies they screen if they take the money.

During Governor Cuomo's visit to Lake Placid last weekend, he was asked about the threat to small town movie theaters in the North Country. The governor responded: “I'm not aware of this particular problem, but we have a Regional Economic Development Council in the North Country that is working extraordinarily well and their job is to identify the economic needs within the region, prioritize the needs, and then they come to the state and we figure out how we can help.  So if this is an issue, I would encourage the Regional Economic Development to take up, and if we can help we will.”

Reg Clark after half a century in the movie business, says he worries that people won't learn about the danger to small town cinema until the doors are closing.

All these theaters have one year to figure this out: whether the state or other larger players will offer to help pay for the conversion, or they can come up with different business models. But if they don’t, by the end of 2013, all of these theaters could go dark, for good.

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