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Small Movie Houses Face Digital Change

Tim Lloyd
St. Louis Public Radio

"If it wasn't here, we wouldn't have anywhere to go."

About a dozen people mill around the small lobby of the Senate Theater in Elsberry, Mo., a little town about an hour north of St. Louis.

A couple kids split a box of candy. In the corner a pack of guys in flannel shirts and John Deere hats swap farm stories.

Brandi Rockwell is sitting in the back row with her two kids.

“Parents may not have vehicles, may not have money for gas," Rockwell says. "This is the spot, it’s right here in town.  Most of our housing is right around this area, just a few streets up. If it wasn’t here, we wouldn’t have anywhere to go.”

As the Rockwells get settled in, hundreds of feet of film start to spin on a five-foot-wide metal disk.

But the sound of frames passing through a projector is about to be replaced by the steady hum of a computer cooling fan.

More whiz-bang

The industry is retooling to distribute movies digitally, which saves money and makes it easier to give audiences more 3-D whiz-bang. While the move is great news for Hollywood accountants, the cost of new equipment is giving small theater owners a serious case of sticker shock.

Sandra Sinnett has run the Senate Theater with her husband Bob since 1974 and says upgrading her equipment won’t be cheap.

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Sandra and Bob Sinnett stand outside the Senate Theater in Elsberry, Mo.

“There’s not really a process, it’s coming up with the money,” Sinnett says. “Because the money, for small theaters, you just don’t have it.”

Sinnett and her husband, both in their seventies, had to dig into their savings and get a loan to pay for $110,000 in digital equipment.

A sweet deal for major studios

And as hard as the transition has been on the Sinnetts and other small theater owners across the country, it’s a pretty sweet deal for major studios.

“The studios were very high on switching over,” says Peter Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners. “Mainly because it will save them, in terms of print and distribution cost, about $1 billion a year.”

Corcoran says the studios have bundled up some of the cash they’re saving into a subsidy to help theaters go digital, which typically costs around $70,000 per screen.

But a lot of the time the subsidy doesn’t work that well for small theater owners.

“There will be some that just aren’t going to be able to financially make it,” Corcoran says.

As bad as this change could be for some theaters, it’s going pretty smoothly for others.

More about mechanics than money

Brian Ross co-owns the Hi-Pointe, where they made switch to digital about a year and a half ago. Ask him about him about it and the last thing he wants to do is talk about money.

Instead, he starts reminiscing about all those old gears and switches. When something went wrong with an old projector, he just popped it open and fixed it with his own two hands.

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Brian Ross, who co-owns the Hi-Pointe in St. Louis, sits with his dog in the ticket booth.

“Film involved you in the whole process,” Ross says. “You know, when you had to lace up the projector, and clean the projector.  It just involved you, made you feel part of the movies.  Digital now, you know, you set up a playlist with trailers and you don’t really do anything, it’s like a computer.”

He says switching over to the new technology wasn’t a big deal.

It actually makes it easier for him to show old movies, a healthy part of his business.

He just pops in a DVD or Blue Ray and hits play.

As for the money, he says that, yeah, it hurt to take out a loan for $100,000.

“Our goal was not to fret about the money so much, as to make sure this theater stays alive,” Ross says.

Soon the tick of a projector will be gone for good back at the Senate Theater, in Elsberry.

Bobby Sinnett is standing outside the projection room thinking about what all this means for folks like his parents.

He says the way this whole thing went down just doesn’t seem fair.

“It’s either you come up with the money or you close down your business.  For a lot people like my mom and dad, it’s their heart and soul,” Sinnett says.

Once his parents step out of the ticket booth for good, he and his siblings plan to take over and keep the place open for another generation.

Follow Tim Lloyd on Twitter: @TimSLloyd

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.