Small-town theaters fight for existence in digital ageARMOUR — Digital movies are the future, and small community theaters are adjusting.
By: Anna Jauhola, The Daily Republic
ARMOUR — Digital movies are the future, and small community theaters are adjusting.
In less than four months, the Armour community and its supporters have raised nearly $80,000 to buy a digital projector.
Armour’s Lorain Theatre is operated by volunteers — from ticket-taking to concessions to the projector.
The volunteers have also worked hard to solicit money for the digital projector purchase.
“It was not our choice to upgrade the equipment,” said Susan Hoffmann-Lout, a main volunteer for the theater. “It’s something the industry is facing overall.”
It’s getting harder to book 35 mm film to run in theaters, a fact that contributed to raising funds to update The Lorain, she said.
The Lorain held its digital debut Feb. 17. An Iowa company installed the digital projector starting the week of Feb. 13.
Hoffmann-Lout said the first weekend went well and the digital movie received rave reviews. She said patrons couldn’t believe the clarity of the picture.
Volunteers have operated the one-screen theater since it opened in 1999, and it’s been self-sustaining ever since, Hoffmann-Lout said. But when volunteers realized the need to update equipment, they knew fundraising would be necessary.
The group set a lofty goal of $80,000 not knowing whether it could be reached. The fundraising initiative began in October 2011 with a challenge.
“Since we were facing the prospect of raising such a large amount of money, we tried to come up with an idea to gather donations that would kind of snowball,” Hoffmann-Lout said.
The group asked people to challenge each other to raise the money.
The concept caught on quickly. Families took sibling rivalry to a new level with one sister donating $100 and challenging her five siblings to donate the same. Two individuals each donated $1,000 and challenged businesses in the community to donate the same amount.
“I thought we’d be able to raise the money, because we’ve always had such great support,” Hoffmann-Lout said. “But I don’t think anyone expected it would happen as quickly as it did.”
Other area theaters have been just as successful in converting to the digital age.
Platte’s Lyric Theater is also run by volunteers and rents out space to remain self-sustaining, said Bonnie Ringling, secretary/treasurer for the Lyric Theater.
The Lyric went digital in November 2011 after receiving loans to help pay for the $82,000 digital projector and equipment.
“We were having trouble getting good movies,” said Dee Rassmussen, Lyric Theater board member.
The Lyric Theater dates back to the late 1800s as an opera house. The original building burned in 1916, but was rebuilt and served as many businesses — a museum, beauty shop, dentist office and optometrist office, among others.
A local couple, Mark and Diane King, purchased the building in the 1980s and restored it with the help of volunteers.
The theater still features a stage for live performances, but the main attraction is the movies. The Kings procured used seats from a larger theater in Omaha that was remodeling. The original wood floors add a unique charm.
The theater is available to rent for occasions and is also home to smaller businesses, which rent the space. A photography studio occupies a portion of the second floor and the city’s chamber of commerce occupies a corner of the main floor.
The theater also sells screen space. Businesses that want to advertise to the local community can purchase an ad to play prior to any movie. Anyone can also purchase a “happy ad” for a birthday, anniversary or other special occasion.
Volunteers to run the theater are not hard to come by.
“This is a huge community service,” Ringling said.
Two other area single-screen theaters are for-profit, privately owned businesses.
Wagner Theater Inc. became a reality in 2010 when brothers-in-law Jim Daum and Dana Kantner decided to revamp an old implement building.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Daum, a former teacher.
The two men put a lot of their own time and money — approximately $350,000 — into the theater, which has been a big hit with the community. That included the cost of a digital projector.
Wagner’s former theater closed in the 1970s. Daum said the last movie shown was “Jaws.”
Because the theater is brand new, there was no film equipment to replace. Daum said they simply went with digital equipment from the beginning. The men received loans to help pay for the project.
They did almost all the demolition on their own. Kantner owns L&D Flooring in Wagner, so they installed their own flooring.
Despite the large investment, Daum said he keeps ticket and concession prices low to make sure it is affordable entertainment. Each ticket costs $5 and 3D movies are $7.50.
“We’re making some money with it, so it’s been a good venture,” Daum said.
Daum’s and Kantner’s families also help run the theater. Lisa Kantner, a local nurse, and Deanna Daum, a local pharmacist, help with concessions and other duties.
Daum’s mother, Sally Daum, also helps out by running the ticket booth.
“We wanted something in the community that gives kids something to do,” Daum said. “It’s a pretty big small town, but there’s not much to do.”
The State Theatre in Chamberlain serves a wide variety of people as well, but has always been privately owned and manned by paid employees.
Donna and Jeff Buche purchased the State Theatre from a former accountant at Buche Foods. At the time, Jeff Buche was running the movie section at Buche’s and asked the accountant whether he’d be willing to sell the Chamberlain movie theater.
The Buches have owned the theater for 24 years and just upgraded to digital projection in June.
Donna Buche said the theater received a loan from the city to assist in the upgrade.
“The city of Chamberlain helped us with that to keep a business on Main Street,” she said. “We really didn’t have a choice. Everybody’s in the same boat.”
Buche said the digital project was $85,000, and was a necessary upgrade to not only remain in business but to get good movies on a timely basis.
She said the investment in a digital projector has been nothing but positive. The theater continues to draw in customers seven days a week.
“We are so well supported, which is why we’re still here,” Buche said.
Other theaters in the area are working to stay afloat while they decide whether to stay open.
The Hipp Theatre in Gregory was revived about eight years ago. Sandi Wernke, a main volunteer at the community-owned theater, said it closed for a year until local businessman Elmer Karl, owner of the Karl’s TV and appliance empire, bought the building.
“He didn’t want to see the theater closed,” Wernke said. “We formed a community board and the community is slowly buying the theater back. We about have it purchased back from him.”
The Hipp Theatre, like so many others, is run by volunteers. But it’s getting harder to get good movies printed on film. Recently, Wernke said the theater had to switch to another film because there weren’t enough prints of a popular one that was scheduled to show.
“Eventually, they’re not going to make prints anymore,” she said. “I’m not sure when, but that’s why we have to go digital now. Either you convert or you close.”
Volunteers formed a committee recently to decide how to go digital. Fundraisers, grant dollars and loans are three possibilities the committee is looking at, but no decisions have been made.
The 164-seat theater shows movies on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. Reduced ticket prices allow for a fun night on the town. Concessions sales are what help keep the theater viable.
Residents in Tripp are struggling with whether to keep the Idle Hour Theater open. Volunteer Cindy Batterman said the community is slowly coming around and getting over the $80,000 price tag for a new digital projector.
“There’s a lot of discussion that it’s lots of money, it’s an aging building, the community is not growing,” Batterman said. “It’s a lot of money, but we’d also hate to see it lost.”
The theater also provides entertainment for surrounding towns like Scotland, Menno, Tyndall and Avon.
The Idle Hour Theater Co. was set to hold a community meeting Feb. 28, but it was canceled due to inclement weather. Batterman said she had “lots of phone calls” from local and area residents who didn’t want to miss the meeting.
“Little by little the sentiment is, ‘I don’t want to see it close,’ ” she said.
The Idle Hour is run by volunteers, including the board members. The only paid positions are three projectionists, which were mandated by a grant the theater received when it opened in 2001.
The theater started with silent films in 1923 and included an orchestra pit and stage for live productions. It was also a venue for local events, which were held in the basement. By the early 1970s, the theater closed, but the building continues to be a multipurpose site for the community. It now also houses the city finance office, police department and maintenance department.
The future of the Pix Theatre is a little bleaker in Winner. Rick Meister, who has owned the theater for 25 years, said he won’t be able to borrow enough money to invest in digital equipment and won’t qualify for grants or low-interest loans because he privately owns the theater.
The theater may have a bright spot in the possible darkness, though. Local residents have started a Save the Pix Theatre group on Facebook to encourage ideas on how to keep the theater going.
“It’s a humbling thing,” Meister said. “This has always been something that’s just me. It wasn’t something to do to make a living. It’s something I like to do. I do it because I love doing it.”
As movies are made more in digital form and fewer are copied into film form, Meister’s film booker said it’ll take longer to get new films to the theater.
Meister said he’s willing to work with a group to save the theater.
“I would love to work with someone, but I feel terrible that I have to,” he said. “I just have a really hard time with the concept.”
Since he’s owned the theater, Meister has always known he wanted it to go back to the community when he’s no longer able to operate it. He just didn’t know the day would come sooner than he thought. The community support has made it easier for Meister to accept the concept.
He still can’t quite fathom having to ask a community board of directors which movies to show, who to give tickets to or what color to paint the bathroom.
“It’s immensely emotional,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes here, but it’s been me that’s done it. It’s part of the challenge and fun of having a movie theater. If the challenge isn’t there anymore, I don’t know if it’s going to be as much fun.”