Move to new technology helps owner avoid extinction
By Ed Nadolski, Editor in Chief
Plaza Theater owner Shad Branen says he plans to hang onto at least one of the 35-millimeter film projectors that have been a staple at the Burlington theater since it opened in 1927. Facing a “convert-or-die” ultimatum from movie studios, Branen recently converted the theater’s four screens to digital projection. (Photo by Ed Nadolski)
When Shad Branen talks about the long history of the Plaza Theater – and the fact that it has essentially used the same technology of film projected on a screen since it opened in 1927 – he gets a little bit nostalgic.
But as a businessman and theater owner, Branen is also forced to have a practical side.
And when his practical side told him it’s time to change or go the way of the dinosaurs, Branen listened.
The 9 p.m., March 22, showing of “Oz the Great and Powerful” was the last at the theater projected in the 35-millimeter film format.
Since then all of the shows on the Plaza’s four screens have been projected in clear, crisp 4K digital format.
But this story is about much more than a small-city theater making a quantum leap in technology – it’s about the very survival of independent theaters and the perpetuation of a local pastime that dates to the time when horses and buggies were tied to posts outside the theater on what was then known as Geneva Street.
Convert or die
From a practical standpoint the Plaza Theater – and some 2,000 other independent theaters across the nation – are facing a “convert or die” ultimatum from the motion picture industry.
Branen said most of the major studios have already informed theater owners that they will stop distributing movies on film by the end of the year. That means the theaters that don’t convert will have to compete for a dwindling number of films from dwindling number of studios – until there’s no film at all.
According to officials with the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), the full conversion to digital will save studios about $1 billion a year in the cost to make and distribute movies.
For the studios, the decision is a no-brainer – the digital movies are cheaper to produce and provide a higher-quality experience for the theater patrons. And with roughly two-thirds of the nation’s 5,700 for-profit theaters (representing 39,888 screens, according to NATO) already converted to digital, the time is right for the studios to force the hands of the remaining theater owners.
The challenge, however, comes in the fact that most of the theaters that haven’t made the conversion are small independents – many lacking sufficient financial resources to make the leap to digital.
For Branen, the decision to go digital hinged on a chance meeting with a Sony representative and a relatively attractive financing plan.
“It’s kind of bittersweet that film is going away,” Branen said. “But once you see the (digital) picture the bittersweet goes away.”
On the cutting edge
The 4K digital technology offered by Sony and installed at the Plaza is touted as having four times better resolution than the 2K digital format currently in use at most theaters, according to a company press release.
That puts the Plaza on the cutting edge of projection technology and, for the time being, gives it the distinction as the only theater in the state with Sony’s 4K format, according to Branen.
In addition, the system comes with Dolby 7.1 sound capability and the ability to employ a dual-lens projection system that will accommodate 3D movies.
“The picture quality is phenomenal,” Branen said. “This (system) gives us even more potential in the future.”
He is in the process of replacing the four screens in the theater, which should further improve the images and allow the Plaza to take full advantage of all the features of the digital projection system.
Branen said the new screens should be in place in a matter weeks, most likely sometime in May.
With a price tag topping $250,000, the Plaza’s conversion to digital was not made lightly or easily, Branen said.
Like the 1980s battle between VHS and Beta videotape formats, Branen wanted to be sure he selected a digital format that would be in use for a long time.
While he’d been considering various options for more than a year, it was a chance meeting at a NATO conference about six months ago that led Branen to the Sony 4K system.
“It was everything we wanted,” he said. “And it was just by chance I sat next to (the Sony representative).”
Financing is key
The system comes with a financing package – Virtual Print Fees, or VPF – that offers points that can be reinvested into the cost of the conversion. Branen said it is similar to a lease-to-own program.
That package, along with Branen’s own investment and financing made the project viable.
“To do this completely on our own is cost prohibitive,” he said.
The technology itself is so new that Sony is still working out some of the bugs of the system with the Plaza as one of its testing grounds.
Now rather than receiving weekly shipments of labor-intensive 35-millimeter film reels, the Plaza receives digital hard drives that can be loaded directly into one of the four projectors or a central server. In the future, the theater should be able to forgo shipments entirely and download the new releases by satellite to the Plaza’s server.
And instead of having an employee hover over a projector to start each movie, the digital projectors can be started with a remote button in the concessions stand or even from a smart phone app, Branen said.
Also gone are the days when film breaks occasionally led to delays and dissatisfied customers in the middle of movies.
Eye on the future
While he’s excited about the advances digital projection brings to his theater, Branen does feel a bit conflicted about abandoning the film format so suddenly and permanently.
He plans to keep at least one of his film projectors around for tours and educational purposes as a tribute to the history of the theater.
But that doesn’t mean Branen is stuck in the past. Since purchasing the theater several years ago he has made several changes intended to improve the movie-going experience for customers.
Last summer he installed new, wider seating with cup and tray holders. A year before that he introduced food, beer and wine service.
All of the changes are designed to help the Plaza remain competitive in a market dominated by corporate theater ownership.
Of all the changes, however, the conversion to digital allows the Plaza to remain relevant as a first-run movie theater.
“It was crucial to the survival of the Plaza,” Branen said. “It secures our future.”