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Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis Theaters and the Digital Cinema Conversion

Posted on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012 3:29 PM by Scott Jentsch


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Image Copyright 2012 SVJ Designs, LLC.Several theaters in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area were featured in a recent article published by the Star Tribune about the transition happening in the movie theater industry to Digital Cinema Projection systems. While some have done the conversion, others are working on it, and at least two will close because of it.

The choice facing Minnesota's movie theaters is clear. Rewire or retire.

The whirring mechanical equipment that has projected films for the past century is about to go extinct. Taking its place is a suitcase-sized digital system that costs $70,000 to $85,000, four times as much as a mechanical projector.

By the end of 2013, the six major studios will release new titles in digital format only. There will simply be no new 35-millimeter studio releases to project.

With every revolution comes some bloodshed. The extensive, expensive task of going digital means that many small theaters and some chains will fall victim to changing times and technologies.

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The cost of outfitting 15 screens with all new digital equipment was among the complex of issues facing the 10-year-old AMC Block E. Minneapolis' only downtown movie theater will close in September.

This is probably the final summer for the Cottage View, one of the last two drive-in theaters in the Twin Cities. Steven Mann, whose locally based theater company operates the Cottage Grove landmark, said he doesn't plan to retool it.

Mann completed work on the St. Louis Park 6, the last of his complexes to go digital, in early August. The tab for converting his 10-theater chain was a daunting $4 million. And it won't bring in additional revenue at the box office, he said.

Joe Minjares, owner of the Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis, is caught in the now-or-never squeeze and uncertain about the future. "I'm at a loss," he said. "The economy being what it is, getting any kind of funding is difficult. Maybe we can get vault prints from the studios and show old movies, but I'm not sure what the market is for that."

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While studios offer financing agreements to defray a portion of the changeover expenses, "they really don't care if single-screen theaters go away," said Tom Letness, owner of the Heights Theatre. The 86-year-old Columbia Heights showplace, with its vintage Beaux Arts décor and Wurlitzer organ, is the Twin Cities' longest continuously operated cinema. Letness recently converted to digital, but he doubts the new systems will last more than 50 years, like some of his classic reel-to-reel machines.

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Landmark, which operates the Edina, Lagoon and Uptown theaters, has outfitted all of its local screens with new projectors, but [Ted Mundorff, president of Landmark Theatres] predicts that marquees will go dark on smaller cinemas that served their communities for generations.

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Last fall the single-screen Jem Theatre in Harmony, Minn., 150 miles south of the Twin Cities, turned to the town's 1,080 residents for help with its $75,000 upgrade.

A plastic juice jug on the concessions counter raised more than $7,000 from customers. Owners Paul and Michelle Haugerud found a near-new projector for $55,000 and a local bank agreed to finance the balance. Additional support came from a private community development agency, a philanthropic trust and a fundraiser at a local bar and grill. The effort was so successful that the theater's debt was retired this spring.

"It's taken me a long time" to accept the necessity of investing in new equipment, but that's what you've got to do," said Loren Williams, owner of the discount second-run Riverview Theater in south Minneapolis.

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"It's the cost of doing business," Williams said, comparing it to the expense of a new heating-cooling system. "Fortunately, we're not operating on the edge, so we'll get by. "

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