Voices of Digital Communities

Small Towns Face a New Digital Challenge – at the Movie Theater

Small theaters across the country must convert to digital format -- at $60-$70 thousand dollars per projector, or go out of business.

by / March 4, 2014

The digital era offers many challenges: from trying to remember all your passwords to realizing how few of your fellow citizens can hope to earn a living wage without knowing how to work a computer.  The challenges feel personal and they are –but they also challenge the life of the community, sometimes in unexpected ways.


In small towns across the United States, today’s challenge is to “go digital or go dark.”  No, it is not about smart streetlights.  It is about movie theaters, or cinemas most of the world calls them.  In many small to midsize cities, the movie theater is a heritage building constructed as a palace of entertainment ages ago.  It is more than a place to watch films.  In places far from the hotbeds of culture, it is a cultural touchstone and a symbol of civilization.  A lot of people care about it and want to see it survive.    

The future of those theaters, however, is in doubt, according to a New York Times article by Paul Post. The major movie studios have started announcing that they will no longer distribute movies to theaters on 35-millimeter film.  Paramount was the first, with The Wolf of Wall Street, but others have announced the same goal.  Producing and shipping a 35-millimeter print to a single theater costs US$2,000.  A digital drive containing the film can get there for one-tenth the cost, and satellite or online distribution is cheaper still.

To show digital films, however, theaters need digital projectors – and it costs $60,000 to $70,000 to install just one.  Hence the problem for a place like the Palace Theater of Lake Placid in New York State, which opened in 1926.  As a small theater with four screens, it had no hope of being able to find the $260,000 needed to make the conversion.  The owners, Reginald and Barbara Clark, who bought the business in 1961, were facing its end.  

Facing its end, that is, until people in Lake Placid heard the news.  Friends and neighbors began organizing and succeeded in raising enough money to buy one projector.  The Clarkes’ extended family pitched in to buy and install a second one.  

A regional nonprofit, the Adirondack North Country Association, launched a “Go Digital or Go Dark” campaign that has raised another $100,000 to continue the conversion.  It has raised funds and won grants to help other theaters in other places you have never heard of – Tupper Lake, Indian Lake and Old Forge – make the change.  

Like all the great industrial transitions – from water power to steam power, hand-crafting to the assembly line – the digital age giveth and the digital age taketh away.  Most of the time, it feels as though we have no choice in the matter.  But places like Lake Placid show us otherwise.  When they care enough, the people of a community can have a voice about what comes and what goes, and the Intelligent Communities of the world are harnessing that energy today to build a better tomorrow.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.