Mandatory digital movie makeover threatens small town theater

3:06 PM, Aug 26, 2012   |    comments
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MILACA, Minn. -- For more than 60 years, the Milaca Theatre's been the centerpiece on the main drag.  And through the years, little has changed.  Three years ago they finally put in a cash register.  The workers are currently paid in popcorn and picture shows.  The 35 millimeter projector is World War 2 era.  It is the theatre's one and only problem.

"For small town theaters, we have to convert to digital and that's a cost for us of around 70-thousand dollars," Milaca Theatre owner Brigid Halberg told KARE 11.

The whole industry is converting by the end of the year.  It is a massive undertaking.

"This shift in the industry is very significant," Jill Renslow the VP of Development at the Mall of America explained.  The Theatres at Mall of America will switch out 14 projectors by the end of the month.

We asked Renslow what this digital revolution is all about.  "A clear crisp picture; it's going to be a movie experience that you cannot get at home and that's one of the reasons studios are doing this.  It's a trend in the transformation of technology and it's delivering an upgraded experience that you can't get at home," was her reply.

"We're just looking to keep it open for the community mainly," Milaca Theatre co-owner Josh Halberg said.

Brigid and Josh don't make much of a profit, if any, on this old 375 seat 1 screen theater.

Perhaps it's not worth much financially, but it means a lot to Milaca.  Just 3 years ago the Halberg's secured a loan and bought it at the last minute, saving it from extinction.

The projector cost of the digital conversion is expected to force hundreds of small-town theaters to close across the country.

Geri Colvin of Milaca rarely misses a movie in Milaca.  "Just the old, old time small feeling, you're not lost in some big city," she said.

The Halbergs have begun a fast and furious fund raising campaign, hoping to raise half of the $70,000 needed for a new digital projector and the sound system it needs.  Their plan is to finance the rest through the bank.  So they need to raise $35,000; right now they've raised about $26,000.

"Right now, with the financial state of everybody and this community especially, we don't want to raise our prices. Right now we charge 4 dollars for the regular showing," Brigid Halberg said.

This theatre's survived 4 ownership changes and a fire in a little more than 6 decades.  The Halbergs hope it can survive the digital change.  "I can't, I can't imagine this town without this theater, it's a staple of the community," Brigid concluded.

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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