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Goodbye to the 'flick': Small Michigan movie theaters facing deadline

This is a big weekend for film fans, but the movies honored this weekend at the Oscars may be the last ones to be in theaters as actual "films."  

And that’s bad news for many small neighborhood and drive-in theaters in Michigan.

A night at the neighborhood theater

The Friday night crowd is gathering in the lobby of the Sun Theater in Williamston.

Everybody seems to know everybody else at this small, one screen, neighborhood movie house. From the low ticket prices and very affordable concessions, the Sun Theater is a throwback, and that’s especially true for what’s at the top of the stairs at the rear of the theater.

35 millimeter film is flickering through a projector, which shines that night’s movie on to the silver screen.  

It’s basically the way films have been shone for a hundred years, but that’s about to end.

Goodbye to film

For around decade, movie studios have been transitioning from film to digital projection systems. Instead of multiple reels of film, a digital copy is simply downloaded into a computer at the theater.

Now, movie studios plan to stop distributing movies on 35 millimeter film entirely this year. 

Movie theater chains made the transition to digital projection systems a long time ago, but small local movie theaters, like the Sun in Williamston, are scrambling to raise the money they need to replace their old film projectors.

Mike Doyle fears the digital transition will lead more of Michigan’s neighborhood theaters to shut their doors.

The former Michigan State University professor is an aficionado on Michigan’s old movie theaters. He says back in 1947 there were 355 neighborhood movie houses in Michigan. By 2000, that number had dropped to about 70.   Mike Doyle says many small neighborhood and drive-in theaters may not be able to afford the new digital projection systems, which cost about $80,000 to $100,000.

“The expense to converting over to this new system is quite prohibitive for some of these theaters that have no cash…to even…start it out,” says Doyle.

Goodbye to texture and the 'flick'

Michigan Economic Development Corporation “is looking at options to see what, if anything, can be done to assist” local theaters with the costs of the transition. But as of now, the theater owners are on their own. 

For those small theaters making the transition there may be another problem: the technology itself.

Ben Mankiewicz knows something about movies. He’s not only a host on cable TV’s Turner Classic Movies.   His grandfather won an Oscar for the screenplay for Citizen Kane.

Mankiewicz says the digital movie experience, in many ways, replicates the home TV experience, and that’s not a good thing.

“You’re losing that certain kind of texture…and depth and look,” says Mankiewicz, “Really in many ways what made film different from television.”

Mankiewicz does see a positive side. He says, since it costs movie companies less to distribute movies, digital may allow a wider range of movies to be shown in more theaters.

Dan Robitaille’s family has owned the Sun Theater in Williamston for more than 30 years.   He’s optimistic about the future of the local movie house.

Robitaille says the community has helped raise most of the $80,000 needed to buy and install the theater’s the new digital projection system. He hopes to have it in place by this summer.

Robitaille expects the Sun will remain the much same with one difference.

“The one thing you’re not going to see as 35 millimeter goes away …is the movie’s called a ‘flick’…because you see a frame go through…flick, flick, flick….and that’s why it was always called a ‘flick.’” says Robitaille,  “And so, that’s going to go away because you’re not really going to see that much of the frames going through the light.”

And that leads to a question.

Can you really still call them ‘films’ when there really is no actual film involved?

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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