By Mary Drier
and Bill Petzold
CARO — The three Art Deco style movie theatres in Tuscola County have survived the Great Depression, fire, floods, and more.
Now their existence is threatened by technology.
Hollywood studios will soon switch to releasing digital movies from the traditional 35 mm prints. To make that kind of change is costly. It’s estimated about 20 percent of the movie theatres in America will not be able to afford the change to stay in business.
The owners of the Cass Theatre in Cass City, the Vassar Theatre and Caro’s Strand Theatre are each working to raise funds — estimated between $60,000 and $70,000 apiece — to upgrade their projection equipment to digital gear.
Tuscola County residents will have a unique opportunity beginning this week to help save the Strand Theatre, 116 Frank Street, Caro’s hometown theatre since the 1920s. Fund raising efforts for the Strand begin with a special kick off from 5 – 7 p.m. Thursday at the Caro Chamber of Commerce’s After Hours event around the corner from the Strand on Frank Street at Pro-Tech Computing. The Chamber and Tuscola County Economic Development Corporation are teaming up to help support the digital transition.
“We don’t want another empty building in Caro,” EDC executive director Steve Erickson said. “The Strand is a cornerstone of our community; it gives people a reason to come downtown.”
Those wishing to save the Strand may chip in by purchasing a $30 ticket that includes a $10 gift certificate for dinner at The Oven or dinner or bowling at the Brentwood, as well as free admission to an April 4 screening at the Strand that begins at 8 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at Thursday’s After Hours kickoff, or by stopping by the Caro Chamber and EDC office, 429 North State Street, Suite 102. For information call EDC at (989) 673-2849 or Caro Chamber at (989) 673-5211.
Strand owner Rick Farris said he and his wife, Angie, already have been blown away by the response from the community and are deeply grateful to the EDC and Erickson for organizing the effort.
“We just put it on our Facebook page yesterday, and 3,600 people have already seen it, which amazed me,” Rick Farris said. “I’m seeing names I went to school with. It’s pretty awesome, my wife and I really appreciate it. This is all (because of) Steve Erickson from EDC, this was his idea so you’ve got to give him a lot of credit. We have about 18 more months, maybe two years (to change over to digital), but the longer we wait it’s going to get harder and harder to get film. We’re going to try to do it as soon as we can.”
Erickson said that businesses also have joined the effort, and checks may be written to the Tuscola County EDC to help the cause.
“This is a chance to save our theatre,” Erickson said. “The estimated cost to convert to digital will be between $60,000 and $70,000 … it’s going to take a lot of participation to raise these funds. EDC will loan the difference of what’s not raised through our equipment lease-to-own program.”
The key reason for industry-wide conversion to digital is cost savings mainly to the film distributor.
“The cost of striking a 35 mm print is estimated at $1,500 versus about $120 for a hard-drive containing the digital version of the film,” Vassar Theatre owner Tim O’Brien said in a previous interview with the Advertiser. “A wide theatrical release can be 3,000 or more screens, so the cost savings are significant — as is the potential profit for the studios.”
While some Hollywood distributors are offering some help, it comes with strings to be reimbursed with “virtual print fees” (VPFs) to small theatres through a thrid-party; and that’s what have small theatre owners concerned.
That third-party monitors the films that theatres would play and pay the VPFs from a pool contributed by the studios.
The integrators would not share information with the theatres until they signed a non-disclosure agreement, and this created a veil of secrecy which left many small exhibitors in the dark, explained O’Brien.
Plus, the majority of VPFs are paid only when a first-run film opens. Second-run theatres and those playing a lot of films off peak would not qualify so VPF program primarily benefits the large exhibition chains more than the independents.
With the VPFs the multiplex chains have basically gotten equipment for free over time which leaves locally owned theatres out of the loop and money. And, lending institutions are apprehensive about making loans for equipment purchases.
The three local theatres and those like them don’t contribute much to Hollywood’s finances, they are a very large and vital part of the overall movie industry.
The theatres those three families operate aren’t just a business. It is a passion. A passion for the art of movies, time, place, imagination, history, culture, and being part of the community they serve and have served for generations.
The Strand started showing movies in the 1920s. In 1939, a neon marquee was added, which is still there today, but a little different than the original one. In the 1990s, the marquee was narrowed back because truck traffic on the corner could hit it. Although altered somewhat, it’s bright neon glow is a beacon in the center of Caro.
Yet, despite that long history and being a vital part of local communities, those small independent theatres and others are at a critical juncture. Their future rests on the shoulders of the community and its business and government leaders who will have to work together to explore ways to keep their theatres from going dark.
The Tuscola County Economic Development Corporation is trying to help find a solution for those businesses. In the meantime, the Friends of the Cass Theatre has formed and is seeking donations. A pledge to match $5,000 has been made. Donations to the Friends of the Cass Theatre may be mailed to 6495 Pine St., Cass City, MI 48726.