Small cinemas plan major upgrades to keep up with technology

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You can't kill the flicker. The flicker will live on.

The flicker is the visual signature of a 35mm film projector, the industry standard for decades and the drug of choice for film fanatics. It's slowly disappearing, pushed into irrelevance by digital projection systems favored by major film studios.

Zero hour will arrive next year, when studios cease to provide old-standard film prints to movie houses around the country.

Independent theaters across the state and the Portland metropolitan area are racing that clock, adopting a common motto: Go digital or go dark.

In Clark County, both Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver and the Liberty Theatre in Camas are looking for ways to acquire the required necessary equipment before 35mm movies become largely a thing of the past. Small independent theaters in Portland face the same dilemma, said Rand Thornsley, the Liberty's managing director and an advisory committee member for a national theater owners' association.

Thornsley is working to renegotiate a long-term rental agreement with the Liberty's owners to take into account his need to purchase new digital projectors. The current rental agreement covers the use of the equipment as well as the building, he said. Negotiations are under way and "we hope to have something back in a couple of weeks," he said.

Although prices have dropped in the last year, Thornsley said, digital projectors remain an expensive investment for small theater owners. He pegs costs today at around $50,000, but some owners are still anticipating a cost of $75,000 or more.

At Vancouver's Kiggins Theatre, operators also are hoping to be ready for the transition, which is expected to take full effect sometime in 2013. "It's definitely getting down to crunch time," said theater manager Chris Stapleton. The theater is looking at fundraising options, including local fundraising or working with a national coalition of theater owners trying to help owners make the conversion.

In Washington's south Puget Sound area, the Grand Cinema and the Blue Mouse in Tacoma, the Olympia Film Society and the Roxy in downtown Eatonville all face the same choice.

"It's all of us little guys," said Susan Evans, manager of the Blue Mouse. "I'm sad for everybody."

The conversion presents no problem for suburban multiplexes and theater chains; virtually all of them have switched already, replacing film projectors with their digital counterparts.

It's not so easy for the independent operators. Around the country, some theaters are shutting down, unable to bear the cost.

Others, such as the Grand and the Blue Mouse, are raising money to fund the conversion. The Grand in Tacoma, which runs four screens, is aiming for $344,000, relying largely on contributions from its members, said executive director Philip Cowan, who said the effort is on track.

"We're writing for grants and then going to our membership for donations, and then every time somebody sees a movie at the Grand, they're seeing a trailer that we have on our website," Cowan said. "Our goal is to install by next fall."

In Olympia, the Film Society runs a single screen at the Capitol Theater downtown, often inviting

prominent directors for discussions. Last month, director Philip Kaufman presented his 1983 epic, "The Right Stuff," which chronicles the early days of the U.S. space program.

The society aims to raise $80,000 for the digital conversion, wrapped into a longer-term fundraising effort to spruce up the 90-year-old building, said executive director Thom Mayes.

Tacoma's Blue Mouse started raising money online last month, aiming at a $75,000 target. As of Tuesday, donations stood at $43,655 -- 58 percent of the money needed, with slightly more than a month to go. "We have had a wonderful outpouring," said Evans, the manager and lone projectionist for the 89-year-old theater in Tacoma's Proctor neighborhood.

The independent houses are stuck with raising money on their own, chiefly because they pick their own films rather than following the dictates of major studios. The multiplexes don't face that challenge; the studios underwrite the cost of conversion.

"Their assistance is kind of assistance with strings," Cowan said. "More or less, it comes back to them giving you kickbacks for you carrying their films."

Cowan, contending with the push from studios, thinks of the pace of technology. Yesterday's phones and music players, discarded like so much trash; but 35mm film set the standard for almost a century.

"I do worry that 10 years from now, that we might have to go through something like this again," he said. "The industry's gonna have a hard time if that does happen."

Columbian Business Editor Gordon Oliver contributed to this story.