That was the choice facing Cynthia Chi and Tim Patterson, owners of the Redwood Theater in Brookings.
“We made the change to digital to stay in business,” Patterson said. “If we hadn’t done it, Brookings would not have had a theater.”
As Hollywood pushes the transition from 35mm film to digital, Chi and Patterson were determined to spare the Redwood from the same fate facing thousands of independent theaters across the country that may close because they can’t afford to make the transition.
By going digital, audiences will experience better sound and brighter, crisper images But it comes with slightly higher ticket prices: $8 for regular films and $10 for 3D films.
The increased prices are a still a bargain compared to big city prices.
“The fee for 3D is required by the film makers,” Chi explained. “It’s not a choice we can make.”
A lot of things have changed during the 14 years that Chi and Patterson have owned the Redwood Theater, but the switch to digital projectors is the biggest.
“We bought the theater in 1999,” Patterson said, “and made some changes to seating and the walls and sound stuff shortly after we bought it, but this is probably the biggest change we’ve made.”
Spurred by the 1999 release of “Star Wars: Episode I -– The Phantom Menace” The theater made the move to Dolby Digital sound in 2000, just in time to show the movie “Chocolat,” recalled Chi.
According to industry pundits, the film in the film industry has slowly been going away since the blockbuster movie “Avatar” was released in theaters in 2009.
“Approximately 90 percent of the movie screens in the U.S. are digital, and 10 percent or less is film,” said Scott Hicks, owner of American Cinema Equipment in Portland. “And that 10 percent is rapidly decreasing because all of my customers still using film are finding great difficulty locating a 35mm print for their booking.”
Once digital has made a 100 percent takeover of the film industry it will be impossible for first-run movie theaters to get product without being digital.
While the move to digital was a no-brainer for many major theaters, the cost for small-town theaters such as the Redwood was problematic.
“It’s a $130,000 system for both screens,” Patterson explained. “We’ve leased the equipment because it’s hard to buy equipment in small towns.”
Patterson and Chi are trying to make the change, mostly the ticket price increases, as painless as possible.
According to Patterson, 50 cents isn’t enough to make up the cost of the new equipment, especially with close to 60 percent of the ticket sales going back to the film makers.
To make up the difference, the theater is dependent on a Virtual Print Fee (VPF).
“The VPF was created by movie companies to help theaters recoup the costs of converting to digital equipment,” Patterson said. “It is the money they save by not sending out the boxes of 35mm film, and it is being given back to the theaters to help them convert to digital.”
Audiences are going to notice the difference between film and digital, said Justin Green, who installed the digital projectors at the Redwood Theater last week.
“The average lay person is going to notice the difference,” Green said. “You hear lots of people say ‘Wow! It looks so much brighter, so much clearer.’ ”
Green has been installing projectors for the last 10 years for American Cinema Equipment and prides himself on providing the viewer with an accurate image.
“I’ll set it up exactly how the director wanted the colors,” he said. “So the viewer is going to see exactly what the director wants you to see.”
Green spent an entire week on both projectors at the Redwood, with each unit taking two to three days to install.
According to Green the main theater — which seats 225 viewers — is 3D capable, while the smaller theater — seating 39 viewers — is not.
“The small theater projector is one of 10 units installed in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s a brand new model, the Barco DP-10S, for smaller theaters and was just released in January.”
Not only is the visual going to be better, but the sound will be better, too, Green said.
“The sound will be better because it will be uncompressed,” he said. “With 35mm the only room was between the sprockets and you lost a lot of information.”
With the digital upgrade, Chi and Patterson will also be able to show 3D movies in the main theater.
Redwood will utilize Dolby 3D technology, which uses color separation to render a full resolution to both eyes, unlike Real 3D which delivers half resolution to each eye.
“I think that Dolby is the better technology,” Green explained. “because it allows more light to get through to the screen and light is what drives the movie.”
According to Patterson, the theater will not monopolize the main screen for 3D all the time, but rather will split time between standard and 3D movies during the week.
“We’ll probably show a couple of 3D shows each week and then standard shows the other days,” he said. “We don’t want to drive away customers who don’t want to see 3D movies, but we also want to attract customers from Crescent City who want a truly great experience.”
While the first digital showing was last Thursday, the first chance moviegoers will have to enjoy a 3D movie will come Thursday night at 9 p.m. when the theater premiers the new film, “Iron Man 3.”
“We’re allowed to start showing it at 9 p.m.,” Chi explained, “but it might be a few minutes after so the other movie can finish running.”
Show times for “Iron Man 3” and all the other movies that will be showing at Redwood Theater can be found on the Curry Coastal Pilot’s Comics page or online at http://www.redwoodtheater.com/ or by calling the theater’s hotline 541-412-7575.