Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Digital Revolution

There are all sorts of issues facing our industry these days. You probably hear about these things in the news: Piracy, VOD, release windows, D-Cinema.  The issue that I am faced with right now and that I spend the most time thinking about is "Going Digital."

Right now, the Eltrym runs 35mm film, as it has done since 1940.  The projectors we use were patented in the 20's.  The technology is stable and safe, and best of all it is mechanical.  That is an important factor when you are located in rural America, far from any cinema techs. Because it is mechanical I can make repairs by myself. I can talk to a tech on the phone and they can walk me through how to locate a broken part, remove it, fix or replace it and how to reassemble it.  With a digital projector, that won't be possible. Why? Because I know very little about making repairs to computers. Usually when my computer starts to have problems I buy a new one.

The reason our industry is moving toward digital is, basically, to save money for film distributors. 35mm prints are big, bulky and heavy; they are expensive to produce and expensive to move around.  Studios want  to do away with this bulk and move to a more streamlined digital model. This way they can spend less on materials, shut down facilities, cut a few jobs and save lots and LOTS of money.

While it saves them lots of money, it costs your local movie theater a ridiculous amount of money to change over. The sum of money required to purchase digital projectors and convert a facility is so ridiculous that it is obscene. Seriously, I typed out the number here and then erased it because it felt dirty.  There are a lot of old theaters in our region that have been owned by the same families for years, and those families are now faced with the idea of going back into major debt to convert. Theaters owners like us are already in debt, having just purchased our facility, but we are now faced with how much debt we want to take on. Will we be able to make it cash flow? How loud will my banker laugh when I ask for that much money?

The studios have thrown us a bone, sort of, called a VPF or Virtual Print Fee.  They say they will give you payments for showing digital prints. Of course, they won't give you any concrete figures of how much money is involved in VPF payments or make any promises, and those VPFs are only available for a limited time.

It is a confusing time for a small independent theater owner.  I had one tech come here and tell me "You should go digital ASAP, it will save you so much trouble." The next tech through the doors says "Don't worry about going digital for a few more years, wait until you NEED to convert."  We pay membership fees to two organizations that represent theater owners, and they are pushing a certain financing deal--that we don't qualify for.  And I sit here all day thinking, if I'm going to spend a gazillion dollars on this place, I'd rather spend it on new flooring and seats (and replacing just about everything else we own, since we are talking that kind of money).

There is an upside to digital which is alternative content. With a digital projection system, you can buy into live telecasts of wonderful things like opera and sporting events, and broadcast them over your theater system. That is something we aren't able to do now with our media projectors, because there isn't a way for us to appropriately pay for these telecasts and pipe them into our system.

So now we are studying up on our financing options and crossing our fingers that the cost will come down a bit in the next couple of years.

And if you are concerned that your local theater owners won't pony up and will walk away and close the doors, don't worry about that.  I'm committed.

(But if you are reading this and if you happen to be a billionaire and if you happen to be interested in making a "charitable donation" for tax purposes, my number is 523-5439. Call me and lets talk.)

:)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Exit Through The Gift Shop

I finally had a chance to watch “Exit Through the Gift Shop” tonight. A random 35mm print of this film was shipped to us a few months back. I had 24 hours with it, and I so badly wanted to put it together and watch it. But, alas, that is against the rules (and I was too lazy). So tonight I watched the DVD. I’ve had a couple of hours to digest it while rocking Ellie to sleep and working on other things, so my “take” on the film might be a little premature. I’ll probably have a changed perspective tomorrow.

First off, have you ever seen “Quality of Life” by Benjamin Morgan of La Grande? It is excellent. Ben was able to come to the Eltrym to show the 35mm print of his film a couple years ago for Thursday Art Night. Before seeing his film, I had never given an ounce of thought to street art.  I mean, it’s neat looking, but I wasn’t looking for it. So after watching his film and listening to the Q & A with the audience that followed, I was fascinated by it.  Soon after Ben came to the Eltrym, Dan & I went to The Netherlands. We rode the train a lot while we were there as we traveled from Amsterdam to all the little towns close by. The graffiti along the train routes and on the trains and at the train stations was incredible. I found myself forgetting to check out the scenery that was passing by and looking for graffiti. I was amazed at what people were able to accomplish, and the risks to life and limb that they took to do it.

So anyway, back to “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” There’s this infamous and elusive street artist named Banksy. Then there’s this guy obsessed with both filming stuff, street artists in particular. The camera guy, Thierry Guetta, wants to find Banksy and film him. After finding and filming Banksy and promising to make a documentary with all the footage he has acquired and then making the film which turns out to be not-so-good, the camera guy starts making street art of his own and ends up mass producing his work and puts together this spectacular, bigger-than-life show of his own and selling a million dollars worth of his work. After helping him out quite a bit, Banksy notes that this guy is an idiot, as do many of the people that work for him; but, in the end, he sells lots and lots of his own street-style art to art collectors for lots and lots of money.  So the premise is that the film was going to be a documentary of Banksy by Thierry, but it ends up that Banksy puts together a documentary about Thierry.

The conversation that seems to take place in response to this film is whether or not this film is a real documentary or a hoax. Who is Banksy? Is the hooded figure with the disguised voice actually Banksy? Is Thierry Guetta/Mr. Brainwash real or a creation of Banksy? Is this film a documentary about Thierry Guetta or a statement about the commercialization of modern art?

As it is supposed to do, it reminds me of almost every trip I’ve taken to an art museum. You go through the museum learning about the artists and their devotion of their lives to their work and viewing their original works up close.  The value of their work is incomprehensible. Then on the way out you are routed through a gift shop where you can buy Van Gogh playing cards for $3.99. It becomes a very commercial experience.

I think that what most made me raise an eyebrow while watching the film was the narration and interview style. I felt like I was listening to a gameshow host narrate an E! True Hollywood Story. The documentary style of the film felt very, very contrived and very formulaic. If it weren’t for that, perhaps I would have taken the story at face value.  But as it is, I didn't. I just wasn't able to take this too seriously. This film, for me, also reinforced my amazement and shock that anyone, literally, can be a musical “artist” these days. Like that Barbie looking chain-smoker on the Real Housewives of New Jersey. 

A couple of things to note:

We have a resident street artist or two in Baker. You can see their work if you look around. Thankfully, they have been respectful with their work, so don’t freak out about it.

“Exit Through The Gift Shop” is available for rental at the Baker Co. Public Library. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Coming Soon

Movie studios like to find something that works and then repeat it no fewer than 1,000 times. They like models and routines and "sure things."  So it used to be you could always count on a nice family film in the beginning of March, and weak sauce in April, followed by a big blockbuster in May to start out the summer.

The studios seemed to assume people were not going to go to the movies in the spring, so they would dump a lot of odd material in March and April and then release so much good stuff in the summer months that we couldn't possibly show all the films we wanted to and ended up skipping some really great stuff.

Last year they broke the mold by releasing "Alice in Wonderland" and "How To Train Your Dragon" in March.  It was awesome. The movies were good, and people showed up. We were busy.

Though the studios are still following the routine to an extent, I think they realized last spring that good films can succeed and bring in the dough no matter the time of year.  So this year they are releasing a few more films that actually look pretty good.  They started out with "Rango" on 3/4, the same week that they released "Alice in Wonderland" a year earlier.

Starting this Friday 3/18 we'll be showing "Limitless" with Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. It's about a writer suffering from writer's block who is given a new drug that unlocks the capacity of his brain, making him limitless.

The following week Warner Brothers is going to try out something a little bit more edgy with "Sucker Punch." In this film, a young girl who is imprisoned against her will finds her escape inside the dream world of her imagination.  It is directed by Zack Snyder, director of "300," "The Watchmen" and "Dawn of the Dead."  At the very least that means it should be freaky and neat-looking. That's enough for me.

I'm hoping to show "Source Code" on the first of April along with "Hop."

I haven't really scoped out April much yet, we'll see how that goes. Then May will start off the summer blockbuster season with a bang with films like "Thor," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "Kung Fu Panda 2."

Here's a few trailers to entice you:

Limitless


Sucker Punch


Source Code

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Popcorn

Dan & I went out to visit my parents tonight, and my Dad informed me that two people he talked with this week said they didn't like the popcorn at the theater recently.  We have had a couple of complaints in the theater too, so it is apparent that we have an issue to resolve.

Let me explain...

Having perfect popcorn has been an unusual little struggle. When I first took over management of the theater in 2007, we were using the cheapest seeds and coconut oil being sold by our concessions vendor. It wasn't that bad which is why our previous excellent manager was okay with it, but I was always annoyed at how dense the kernels looked and felt. The kernels absorbed too much oil and didn't pop out into fluffy pieces. So, when we purchased the theater I decided to step it up a notch and buy Orville Redenbacher only, because the seeds are high quality and consistent.  The results were good.

Then we had mysterious bad tasting individual pieces of popcorn. It took us a while to figure out that the seal on the bottom of our kettle was cracked so the coconut popping oil was getting in there and scorching (the kettle heat only remains on for a couple of minutes at a time, so this posed NO danger), and then leaking out onto the popcorn. Well, the damage to the kettle was irreparable and they don't sell just kettles so we had to crack open our wallet and buy a brand new popper, which was super expensive (I wanted to cry when I clicked "submit" with my credit card info, but then wanted to rejoice when it actually showed up and we threw the old popper out).  Our shiny new machine pops fast and the kernels come out perfect, so we are happy.

Our new machine popping its inaugural batch.

At the same time as this was happening, I was still not 100% happy with how dense and fragile our kernels seemed to be. It seemed like they would absorb too much oil and break down into "old maids" far too easily.

So a few months ago we taste tested a new type of popcorn seed,  a mushroom type seed.  It is much fluffier and sturdy than our normal "butterfly" seed. When we taste tested I was totally sold, it was so delicious and crunchy and didn't absorb nearly as much oil as the old seeds. Maybe it was because I was pregnant that I was so enamored by it. That probably did have something to do with it, considering that after 12 years in a movie theater I really can't taste or smell popcorn.  Anyhow, I decided to mix the mushroom type seeds with our regular Orville Redenbacher seeds to make a nice mix. It actually is the best popcorn I have ever had. I would like to keep serving it, but our customers have spoken.

I think the problem is that the mushroom seeds have a bit  of a spongy texture because the kernels are so big (kind of like fat french fries, where the insides are soft and not crunchy like shoestring fries), so folks think the popcorn feels stale when the chew it, even though it is hot and fresh.  We have literally had people watch their popcorn being popped and then come out to say it is stale 30 minutes later. That's not good.

The good news is that our new popper rules, and because it pops at a higher temperature (because the elements are still new) the kernels aren't absorbing as much oil, which results in fluffier kernels.

I have 2 bags left of the mushroom seeds, so I'll mix them in with the Orville Redenbacher seeds (in a small ratio) until they are gone, and after that we will be strictly Orville Redenbacher.

Next quality control project: to come to a definitive conclusion regarding the butter topping. The butter topping is not quite the bane of my existence, but close. It's a fickle substance. I'll post on that later.

That was quite a lot of words dedicated to the subject of popcorn, and believe it or not, I have only scratched the surface. I hope you have enjoyed reading it, and have come to a much deeper understanding of the subject. I also hope that I haven't typed "pooper" instead of "popper" at some point in this post. I've caught myself typing that 3 times, and now my eyes are tired.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Major Innovations

A few weeks ago I tossed around the idea of putting out a poster bin to rid the theater of unwanted posters. The only reason I considered not doing it was because I thought the middle school aged rascals would tear through it and leave poster remnants all over the floor. I decided it was worth a shot, so I just brought up an empty box from the basement, slapped some rules on it and filled it with posters. It went over very well this past weekend. We had tons of middle school aged kids, and they ate it up and kept it neat. They were surprisingly polite and appreciative. I got rid of all the old posters I had stacked up in the lobby, and now I can start working on my stash from storage upstairs. Then we'll start unpacking the motherload in our attic crawl space.


I also converted one of the Eltrym's original poster frames into an information board where customers can read synopses about the films we are currently showing and those we are likely to show in the near future. We frequently have people come in off the street to ask about a particular film or vaguely ask about what films are coming out in the future. Sometimes we struggle to boil down the entire plot of a film into just a couple of sentences, without giving the wrong impression or telling too much.  Now, when we struggle in that way we can point our customers over to the info board where they can read more.