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'The end of an era': Ganado Cinema goes digital

By ERICA RODRIGUEZ
Feb. 17, 2011 at 4:04 p.m.
Updated Feb. 16, 2011 at 8:17 p.m.

If passion could be measured in dollars, Alvin Svoboda would definitely be the richest man in Ganado, so much so that he sunk his lifesavings into upgrading the Ganado Cinema's projection system. Purchasing a demo model of the BARCO brand projection server, right, for a mere $65,000, Svoboda will keep the cinematic experience alive and well in the small community of fewer than 2,000 people.

STORY SNAPSHOT Local independent theaters are struggling to adapt to a new digital technology change.

The industry is quickly phasing out 35 mm films as Hollywood studios push for theaters to use digital films. The digital versions are less costly, easier to ship and handle and have a better quality picture.

Making the switch can cost small theaters like the Ganado Cinema anywhere from $65,000-$100,000.

Owners are saying film is expected to be completely obsolete in less than five years.

GANADO - The theater doors were locked at the Ganado Cinema for four days this week, the longest since Hurricane Ike.

Packaging and empty film reels littered the front lobby. A small hand-written sign out front explained the theater would re-open Friday with "Big Momma."

Deep inside the building's time-stained walls, way behind the wooden balcony and inside the projection room insulated with foam and chicken wire, a $65,000 equipment shift this week marks the changed language of cinema to digital.

"It's the end of an era," said 73-year-old owner Alvin Svoboda, after hobbling to the same room where he started his first projectionist job 57 years ago. He rested against a bulky machine used to wind his last reels of film.

"You know what that's worth now? Scrap iron," Svoboda said.

Less than five feet away, a sleek, mean-looking black box the size of a commercial sink takes the place of an old, gawking, off-color projector. The new technology ushers in what some are saying could mean the end for small theaters like the one in Ganado: digital cinema.

"A lot of the theaters will have to throw in the towel eventually because they won't be able to make the change," said Byron Berkley, chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners of Texas.

The digital switch has been talked about since 2005, but real moves began last year with most major theaters chains making the costly switch, Berkley said.

The change is slowly forcing small, independent theaters to eat an equipment cost that could be anywhere from $65,000 to $100,000. Many people are predicting in less than five years that film will be completely obsolete.

"We're telling them basically that it's inevitable," Berkley said. "You will have to convert to digital at some point, or you will have to close your theater."

The switch will save Hollywood money, because digital is easier to produce and handle, Berkley said.

An average film is about two miles long and costs about $2,000 to print. The film arrives in bulky packages, looped around a platter and fed into a hot, whirring machine.

In contrast, its sleek digital counterpart only costs about $200 to create, arrives in a small box, gets inserted into a slot on the new machine and can be controlled by a computer, Berkley said.

"It's a piece of cake," said Harold Walrazen, owner of the Twin Dolphins Cinemas in Port Lavaca. Walrazen made the switch for about $70,000 so he could have 3D on one of his screens.

The digital version stays pristine through the process while film gets scratched or jumps when over-handled, owners said.

But Walrazen said few viewers can actually tell the switch even happened, and believes it doesn't make much sense financially for small theaters who won't get help from studios. The lure of 3D got him involved, though because of costs, he's not sure when he'll outfit his other screen.

Walrazen is part of a buying group that negotiated for studios to payback as much as 80 percent of the cost of installing digital. The theaters can get the money back if they show certain studio films for a certain amount of time. The deal requires theaters must show brand new films 85 percent of the time, something that puts the studio refunds out of reach for small theaters like Walrazen's and Svoboda's.

"It's not happening for the independents," Walrazen said.

Other film company promises, like shorter wait times, aren't holding true either. With digital, films are supposed to be easier and quicker to come by, but Walrazen said he still experiences the same wait times.

For Bill Pettit, the 77-year-old owner of the Cozy Theatre in Schulenburg, as film slowly ends, his own business future is obvious.

"If they phase it out, we'll just do without," he said. "That'll be the end of it."

Others are still debating about the switch.

"It's kind of scary," said Gerry Couey, a partner at the Showplace Three in El Campo. Couey is waiting out the situation and hopes to see equipment prices lower. "It's like starting over again."

The switch cost Svoboda nearly all of his life savings, and he's not expecting to see much of it back in his lifetime.

But for the old showman, the art of movie showing must go on.

"Anyway, when we die, we leave our money behind us anyway," Svoboda said. "So what's the difference? It'll be something for somebody to see instead of stagnating somewhere. It'll go on."

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