Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Sad Death of the Dollar Theatre

Cody eulogizes a victim of digital projection.

On December 1, 2013, a 10-screen movie theatre that had been a regular hangout of mine for over 20 years closed its doors for the last time. Although not very old in the construction sense, having just been built in the early '90s, the theatre had for nearly 10 years been "the old theatre" when it came to venues in its city, as just under 10 years ago the same theatre chain built a bigger theatre that became the place for first run releases while the ten screen became a dollar theatre.

To be honest, I forsook Cinema 10 for several years after the construction of the newer, bigger theatre. I saw movies as soon as they came out and paid full price. It wasn't until within the last few years that I began to think... why am I paying more than five dollars (the theatres near me are still less pricey than in some other places) for a movie ticket during the first few weeks of a film's release when I could wait a couple months and go see the movie at the old theatre for just $1? Or $1.25 in the evening. $3 if it was a 3D movie being shown on one of the two screens equipped to show modern 3D films. So while I would continue to see movies I was really hyped for at the new theatre, for a lot of movies I would wait and see them for a buck. This meant that I was also going to the theatre more often, seeing more movies, because when a ticket only costs $1, I could afford to see anything that even slightly caught my interest, I even saw things I wasn't sure I would like.

 Now, conditions weren't perfect at the old, forsaken dollar theatre. If you wanted to see movies in the best possible presentation, it wasn't the place for you. It didn't have stadium seating. That was the new place's main selling point when it was first built. The chairs were old, and I would say that a good 33% of those in the back rows - my preferred place to sit in its small rooms - were busted. But if you sat in a broken seat at first, just move over to the next one.

The rooms were small in the dollar theatre. Shockingly small when I returned to the old place after years of going to newer, bigger theatres. These tiny rooms used to be adequate for a first release showing? It was a mind-blowing thought. But these rooms were perfect for dollar presentations. And there were always good crowds at the dollar theatre. I've been the only person in the screening room plenty of times at newer, bigger theatres. I never saw a movie alone at the dollar theatre.

Come to think of the times I've sat alone in a massive theatre with stadium seating, maybe the old theatre's small rooms were just the right size all along.

In the last couple years, one of the great pleasures I found in going to the dollar theatre was the fact that, the two screens that had been converted to digital projection aside, they still showed movies on 35mm. I don't have a problem with digital projection in general, it looks just fine, but I did feel like theatrical presentations had lost something when the switch was made from film to digital. The tangibility of film added something, it seemed more meaningful to see something on film rather than just a digital video file. And I always loved seeing the "cigarette burns" that preceded a 35mm reel change. Going by the estimated length of a standard reel, you could use cigarette burns as guideposts to figure out where you were in the running time. With digital projection, there's nothing to let you know what point you're at. You're just adrift.

In the end, it was the fact that eight of its ten screens were still film projection only that killed the dollar theatre.

When the movie industry announced that they would stop producing film prints for movies in the United States by the end of 2013, I knew that the dollar theatre, and a whole lot of other small theatres, independent joints, and drive-ins were going to be in trouble. The upgrade to digital projection costs around $80,000 per screen... There was no way a lot of these places were going to be able to afford that. And a lot of them didn't. Many theatres and drive-ins closed in 2013, forced into extinction because of the industry's switch to digital.

Cinema 10 had so many screens, it would have cost its parent company more than half a million dollars to upgrade all of the ones that hadn't yet gone digital. Over half a million dollars for a dollar theatre with small rooms and broken seats... The parent company decided it wasn't worth it, and it was announced that the dollar theatre's last day of operation would be December 1st.

I was there on the day the dollar theatre died. I had to be. I had so many memories of seeing movies at that place, going back more than twenty years. Standing in line outside trying to get tickets to either Home Alone or Home Alone 2 as showing after showing sold out, the sell outs being announced over a loudspeaker. The excitement of seeing Sam Raimi's Spider-Man there on opening day. Seeing movies there with my mom, my brother and sister-in-law. Going to movies with my friends there once we were old enough to drive to movies by ourselves. Having a panic attack during a screening of Ang Lee's Hulk. Spending entire days seeing different movies there, or the same movie and over. The comfort of watching 35mm film after it was no longer the norm, and of knowing that I was seeing the anti-digital Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained the way he wanted it to be seen.

The last movie I saw at Cinema 10 was the Neill Blomkamp/Matt Damon sci-fi action movie Elysium. Once Elysium was over, I found it very difficult to actually walk out of the building. I didn't want to leave it, to say goodbye, to lose this familiar place that had been there for me since childhood. I took pictures of the lobby and hallways with my cell phone, then with one last lingering look toward the concession stand, I pushed my way through the exit and out into the world, leaving Cinema 10 for the last time ever.

In the six months since Cinema 10 closed, I've been seeing less movies theatrically. A lot movies just don't seem worth the trip or the cost when I don't have the option of waiting and seeing them for $1 later on.

That's the sad story of how the Cinema 10 I knew succumbed to the age of digital. I'm sure there are many other stories out there that are a lot like it. There are going to be a lot more stories of theatre closings coming from around the world, because studios intend to stop producing film prints for international releases by 2015.

Originally published on Yahoo Voices.


  1. Near where I live, we have a theater that used to be a "dollar theater." Over last two years the price has increased a quarter at a time often enough that tickets now cost $2.25 (usd). Lots of us still call it the dollar theater because the two-twenty-five theater doesn't have the same ring. Even with more than doubling their price, though, and not upgrading the theaters, same rickety, dingy non-stadium seats in cramped theaters with sticky floors. Not sure if they've upgraded the screens themselves, but even if they did, they certainly haven't equipped themselves with 3D capability. However, there's a certain charm to the place. Of course, the price point is still ridiculously good, which helps. Catching first run movies at the big chains that are everywhere around here run about $11 a pop on average. Add three bucks if you want to see it in 3D and add a few more if it's an IMAX screen. These things all help our "dollar theater" stay packed. I'm not sure how much longer it will be around, but I hope it hangs in there. The fact that it is actually a Carmike theater might help it because I can't imagine they put much money into the place, but do very good numbers every week. And I haven't even mentioned that they charge the same as everyone else for concessions. Excellent write-up.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I hope your dollar theatre will survive. Some places have still managed to squeak by in 2014 with film prints, but it's coming down to the line for "go digital or go dark".

      - Cody