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The Digital Age: Renovating the Sierra Theatre and Uptown Cinemas

There are big changes ahead for the Sierra Theatre and Uptown Cinemas as owners Mike and Carolyn Smith have begun replacing the old 35mm movie projectors with all-new state of the art digital projection systems.

Digital projection is considered by some industry experts to be the largest change in the movies since films acquired sound in the late 1920’s.

In addition to a vastly improved visual experience for film lovers, the major studios and distributors have another impetus for the change. Carolyn Smith explains, “It is very expensive for film companies to produce a 35mm print, so they are eliminating them and forcing theatre owners to convert to digital projectors.”

These old 35mm films are bulky to ship, usually between 5 and 8 reels of film, weighing between 40-50 pounds apiece.

The new system allows film distributors to upload the latest releases directly to hard drives at the two theatres instantly.

Smith says that although much of the ‘magic’ will be gone, the good news is that digital projectors provide a clean and crisp picture. There will be no more cue marks, splices, jitters or scratches. The picture should never be out of focus or out of frame, and with these projectors both screens at the Sierra Theatre will now be fully 3D capable but at the same time flexible enough to play those films for regular 2D showings.

Carolyn says, “We are really excited that Titanic will be re-released in 3D in April. That was our first really big movie that we played at the Uptown Cinemas when it first opened. We played it for 18 weeks!”

The state of the art technology came with a hefty price tag however, and Smith says they had no choice but to borrow the $500,000 needed to change out all of the projection systems. A frightening number of small towns across the country haven’t been as lucky as we have, with local theaters closing by the dozens as studios demand a major investment in this new technology, or else.

“The only reason we were able to get the financing we did,” explains Smith,”and why this is all possible is that for a short time the film companies are offering a Virtual Print Fee to theatres each time they play a movie “on the break” on national release, but not later. The fees will help to pay for a little over half of the cost over a period of about 7 years. What it means is that we will be turning movies over faster than before. If customers want to see a particular film, the earlier the better.”

What is the most oft asked question about the transition? Movie goers want to know if the price of a ticket is going to go up at the theatres. According to Smith, “Quite a few senior citizens said they wouldn’t mind paying an extra dollar, but besides making it more difficult for larger families or people on a fixed income we don’t like that the film companies would automatically get at least 50% of that extra $1.00.”

“Most customers don’t realize that we don’t pay a flat fee for the movies, we have to pay a percentage set by each film company that varies for each film, sometimes as high at 62%. So on an $8.00 ticket the film company gets almost $5.00 and we get $3.00.”

Instead Smith encourages movie lovers to come more often. The more people that come the less likely the theatre will be forced to raise ticket prices.

The Sierra Theatre on Main Street, 1939


Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor
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