Crown Cinema at a cinematic crossroads

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Small-town theaters struggle to survive in the digital age

By Greg Summers

Since opening a little more than 38 years ago, the Crown Cinema on West Meeting Street has shown its share of blockbusters.


However, there is a possibility that it might not be showing many more. The days of dialing up the homespun “what’s showing” telephone recording could be numbered.
Its owner, James Trivett, finds himself at the same crossroads other small-town theater operators face. Not that business is bad.
Trivett understands the up-and-down box-office roller coaster ride.
“Last year was pretty good, but this year has been kinda different,” he said. “They usually have more family films to choose from during the holidays. Stuff like ‘Alvin’ is always popular, but we didn’t have anything like that last Christmas. We did really well with ‘The Avengers’ and all of Tyler Perry’s ‘Madea’ movies have done well in Lancaster.”
Blame the possible closing on the digital age.
Technology may be a wonderful thing, but many mom-and-pop movie theaters could have only a few months left to sell buckets of hot, buttered popcorn, sodas, Junior Mints, bite-size Sno-Caps and kid’s packs.
Major movie studios will stop distributing first-run releases on film in August, which means unless something changes, the  days of 35-millimeter films are winding down. Movie reels have been replaced by computer hard drives.
The move to cut production and distribution costs is putting a strain on local movie houses not equipped to show the less-expensive format. And not changing is not an option. According to NPR, big Hollywood studios have mandated that all of the country’s theaters – big and small – must convert to digital.
If they don’t switch, theaters like the Crown Cinema won’t be able to screen new films. Some studios are keeping 35mm for now, but have increased the fees to show them.
That means that small theater owners like Trivett, who make the bulk of their profits from concessions, must come up with the money to pay for the computer equipment to play those digital files.
Trivett, who also owns The Little Theater in Camden, has already made the digital changeover there. But with a estimated cost of about $60,000 per screen, it means he must come up with about $120,000 to convert Lancaster's Crown Cinema.
“Right now, I’m trying to figure out what my options are,” Trivett said. “They’ve (movie studios) talked about doing it for some time, but they’ve put it off. Right now, I don’t know if they are going to put it off again.”
Deese: ‘I hope not’
Some estimates predict as many as 10 percent of the nation’s theaters could shut down over the decision.
Annette Deese said the thought of the Crown Cinema shuttering its doors makes her shudder.
Deese, executive director of Lancaster Children’s Home, said the Crown Cinema is an important asset for a facility, that provides children in distress with a safe haven.
“I hope not,” Deese said of the possible closing. “It would be a great loss for us. For several years, they have allowed the children to come in and go to the movies on the weeknights at no charge. He (Trivett) has been very generous to Lancaster Children’s Home. What’s he’s done is priceless and gives these kids a nice outlet they couldn’t otherwise get.”
“Imagine the cost if we carried 25 kids to Rock Hill, where the admission is probably double,” she said. “That’s a lot of money. It would be something we’d have to cut out.”
The closing would also affect Lancaster County Parks and Recreation, which includes movie, swimming and bowling outings in its summer day camp program. Summer day camp starts June 3, said Christa Snyder, Lancaster County Parks and Recreation program director.
“It’s a blow for us,” Synder said. “We average sending 100 kids a week to the Crown. They look forward to it. It’s a big thing because they get to see the summer movies when they first come out.”
Snyder said LCPR is also looking at future options to movie outings.
Day campers may have to head to Manchester Cinemas in Rock Hill or Stonecrest in Ballantyne to see the latest blockbusters. That, she said, will mean added cost.
“You’re talking $10 just to get in and for the gas to get them there without a snack,” Synder said. “At the Crown, he lets them see a movie and get a snack for $6.50. Like I said, it’s a really big blow for us.”    
The National Association of Theatre Owners has helped establish programs to assist movie houses in making the switch to digital, but that’s aimed at large chains, or those with deep pockets, which means thousands of theaters could eventually shut down.
“There are some owner-financing programs out there, but it’s tough to borrow money these days,” Trivett said. “Sure you can do it, but you have to put up your business as collateral.
“There are so many fees in the movie business – it’s set up for them to make the profits upfront – it takes you a longer time to recoup your investment.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.

Contact copy editor Gregory A. Summers at (803) 283-1156