ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Switch to Digital Projectors Could Close Some Independent Movie Theaters

It’s rarely something movie-goers think much about — the equipment that projects the picture onto the screen. But it’s that projector that could put some of New Jersey’s independent movie theaters, especially those along the shore, out of business.

Stepping into the Beach Cinema in Bradley Beach is like stepping back in time.

“The people love to come here,” said John Esposito, owner and operator of Beach Cinema. “They like the experience to come back to something that they grew up with.”

Over the years not much as changed in the single-screen theater, from the retro concession stand to the vintage-felt chairs to the 35 millimeter film projector which dates back to the 1930s. But by next year the projector will be useless because movie studios are going to stop using 35 millimeter film, opting to switch to digital. That means the projector will have to be replaced with a digital one.

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“So far exhibitors have been trying to stop this for years and years, but then it got to a point now where how do you argue with progress? The movie industry hasn’t changed since Edison invented it, so it’s hard to argue the fact that technology has caught up with us,” said Robert Piechota, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners of New Jersey.

It’s a costly transition — about $75,000 for one projector. Piechota says of the 821 screens in New Jersey’s 100 theaters, about 62 percent are already digital. He calls it a necessary evil, one that’s putting some movie theaters, especially along the shore at risk.

“The smaller seasonal theaters probably are going to close,” Piechota said.

“I don’t understand why they can’t keep a small amount of film still available. Have the digital for all the multiplexes, but keep a small amount of film available for the independent theaters, so they can survive,” Esposito said.

Frank Theatres has nine locations throughout New Jersey. Five have made the switch to digital. Their other locations will transition by next year. But Frank Theatres is undecided about their two seasonal theaters in Ocean City. The company says it may not be financially feasible to make the transition to digital.

“It’s not something you can just pass on to consumers and say, ‘All right, we’re upping our tickets prices,'” Piechota said.

Piechota just finished transitioning his 10-screen cinema in Hillsborough to digital. He owns another theater close by but wonders whether it’s worth making the investment. If he doesn’t, the theater will close.

“We are going to loss a piece of history, a piece of America,” Esposito said.

At Beach Cinema, owner John Esposito is exploring all his options. He’s going to do everything he can to keep his theater in businesses so future generations can enjoy what he calls the original movie theater experience.

Lauren Wanko reports from Bradley Beach.