Small-Town Movie Theaters Face Digital Age 

The Colonial Theater in Belfast has been around for 102 years. For 100 of those, there was always one constant.

“The delivery of film to theaters was always 35mm film. The movies arrived on these,” said Michael Hurley, co-owner of the Colonial.

But in this digital age, it’s become cheaper for studios to dump film altogether.

“I can’t get this movie. I can’t get that movie. Paramount announced they’re not making any more movies in 35 millimeter.”

So last year Hurley decided to make the digital conversion.

“Three of these turned out to be a hundred and 80 thousand dollar deal,” said Hurley, pointing to one of the new digital projectors his theater has installed.

And for the Colonial and coastal Art Deco theaters up and down the Eastern Seaboard…therein lies the catch.

“It’s great technology. It looks great, it sounds great. But it’s expensive. And figuring out how to pay for it is the challenge,” said Hurley.

The Colonial has now completed that transition. Every film that you see in this theater today is digital. But it didn’t happen without the support of the Belfast community.

“People make donations almost every day when they come to the movies. And it made it possible for us to stay in business,” said Hurley.

Other small theaters in Maine haven’t been so lucky. The Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor closed in 2011, and Hurley is still struggling to bring digital to another theater he owns–the Temple in Houlton.

“If you made a list of every theater in Maine, a number of them are just not gonna make that transition,” said Hurley.

Saving these small theaters, Hurley says, is important because of the role they play in our society.

“Keeping connected as a civilization that shares the same experience,” said Hurley.

But he’s hopeful about the future.

“I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist. I understand the challenges. And things do change in this business. And what movie theater owners are really good at is adjusting,” said Hurley.

Even as technology continues to evolve.

“You had radio, which was gonna kill the movies, and then television and that’s gonna kill the movies…and then last night in a snowstorm, we had a ton of people in here watching movies. And so it hasn’t killed us yet,” said Hurley.