Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Hollywood, Help Save the Small-Town Cinema

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Hollywood, Help Save the Small-Town Cinema

Article excerpt

My great-grandfather founded the Rialto Theater in tiny Grayling, Mich., in 1915. His handbills advertised an opening-day screening of "The Twenty-Million-Dollar Mystery" on "two good single reels."

I run the same theater today, almost 99 years later. But two good single reels aren't what they used to be. Our theater is threatened now because Hollywood movie studios are phasing out 35mm film and beginning to distribute new movies only in digital format. In December, Paramount Pictures announced that "Anchorman 2" would be its final movie printed on film, and other studios are expected to quickly follow suit. Unless we convert to digital projection - an undertaking that will cost upward of $60,000 (or four times as much as our last new film projector) - our theater will have to close.

Thousands of other small-town theaters are similarly at risk. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, as of July there were 4,126 screens in the United States still projecting film - many of them in small towns and many that will likely close in the coming year because they cannot afford the digital transition.

When I consider what the Rialto means to this town of 1,884, I sense what a blow to rural America this loss of movie houses will be. The independent movie theater retains an outsize role in these communities that is quite unlike that of a city or suburban multiplex. In Grayling, our Art Deco theater (rebuilt in 1930 after a fire) is the architectural landmark on the main street of town. It is the only venue that draws large crowds to downtown year in and year out. Quite apart from any historical importance, closing this theater would irreparably deform the center of our town.

There is more at stake than just the fate of a speck on the map of northern Michigan. Small-town movie theaters still have a national purpose: the integration of far-flung places into our national culture. Every time we show a blockbuster on opening night, every time we screen a documentary or a foreign film, every time our audience feels empathy for a character the likes of whom they might never encounter in real life, we are issuing a reminder: yes, this little town is part of the wider world. …

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