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'Convert or die' 

All things considered, movie theaters haven't changed much since the early 1900s. Through wars, depressions, storms and recessions, we've long been able to find solace in the flickering imagery and big screens that make you forget everything that lies outside.

You might not be able to tell, but there's a change happening in movie theaters right now that is arguably one of the biggest since the arrival of "talkies" and color. Soon, the iconic reels of film merrily spinning in the projection room will be completely gone, and theaters across the country will be exclusively digital. Even small ones like our downtown throwback, Kimball's Peak Three Theater.

At the end of last year, Fox Searchlight sent a letter to movie theaters nationwide announcing its coming switch to digital, and distributors big and small have lined up behind. Peak Three owner Kimball Bayles recently tried to get a copy of The Paperboy, starring Matthew McConaughey, but Millennium Films didn't even print that movie on 35 mm.

It's a harbinger of things to come: In February, John Fithian, president and chief executive of National Association of Theatre Owners, was projecting that by 2013's end, "there won't be any film distributed anymore."

Instead, the spools of 35 mm ribbon will be replaced by digital cinema packages, or DCPs, as they're called. And if those glorified hard drives seem to lack the charm of the older technology, well, charm is decidedly subordinate in an era defined by doomsday phrases like "convert or die."

Talking tech

Bayles bought his two-screen theater in 1994, and since has added a third screen and wine bar. Business isn't booming, but it's steady, he says, because Kimball's has its loyal followers and has carved a reliable niche in showing more indie films than mainstream movies.

Though it's being thrust upon them, Bayles and theater manager Matt Stevens say they support the conversion to digital, which they hope to complete at Kimball's by mid-2013.

"I'm absolutely for embracing new technology," says Stevens by phone, while literally trying to fix a reel that had brain-wrapped (essentially become a tangled mess). This is saying something, especially for Stevens, a true cinephile whom Bayles calls a "dying breed."

"You can't just rely on the old horse and buggy that has some certain nostalgia," says Stevens, who adds, "I will miss 35 millimeter — the way it feels, the way it looks on screen — but [digital] will have advantages for filmgoers and cinema."

Mostly, discerning viewers will notice a sharper picture, with nary a scratch in sight. It will be crisper, highlighting greater contrast, with more vivid colors and brightness, says Stevens.

Because film will be stored on a digital hard drive that plays at the push of a button, the role of projectionist will vanish, as will all the chores that come along with it: cleaning equipment, dusting, etc. (Stevens jokes that he "might become a concessionaire.") Theaters with 20 screens will be controlled by one employee, on one computer. Not only that, but the software is high-tech enough that it can automatically adjust the sound based on the number of tickets sold, to account for the sound absorption of more bodies.

Price point

You'd think the switch-over was entirely positive, except for the crippling price tag that comes with going digital — upward of $50,000 per screen. For big cinemas like Cinemark or Carmike, that's manageable, but for small, locally owned and operated movie theaters, that's enough to completely run them out of business.

"It's been looming on the horizon for a long time," says Bayles, "but I've been kind of flipping it the bird."

Digital projectors, like most technology, are becoming cheaper the longer they're on the market, so Bayles has strategically put off the purchase as long as possible. His three screens plus the new sound system will likely come to a grand total of about $200,000, about $75,000 less than it would have been a couple years ago. It also helps that he's buying smaller projectors, because his theaters aren't as big as those in multiplexes.

Still, Bayles says that to come up with the necessary funds, they're going to "try and raise some, and go begging to banks for the rest.

"It would be nice if the film companies would pick up a little bit of the money," he adds, "because they save huge amounts of money by not making prints, or sending them."

Plus, on his end, it's an investment without return. Though the move offers enhanced viewing, converting to digital won't necessarily increase the theater's number of customers. In fact, the National Association of Theatre Owners has predicted that 10 to 20 percent of small theaters may opt to fold.

For locals who vote Kimball's their favorite in Indy Best Of issues every year, its closure would be unthinkable. With its bright red marquee and old-school charm, the theater is one of the only constants in a sea of comings and goings downtown: It's been open since about 1938, when it was converted from a bank.

Bayles tells stories about people who remember coming here before loved ones left for World War II, and he's even heard that a woman once gave birth in Theater 2.

"You're a repository of pretty important memories, a keeper," he says. "It would break my heart to let that place go."

cwright@csindy.com

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