KODIAK, Alaska — Kodiak's two movie theaters are dismantling their 35mm film projectors to make way for new digital projector systems and high-definition movies.
Kodiak is one of the last corners of the country to join a worldwide shift toward the new technology, which came about when production companies announced they would no longer be producing movies on 35mm film, the format used by filmmakers for 120 years.
Multiplexes across the country have already made the switch, leaving only family-owned businesses like Kodiak's Orpheum Theater. According to statistics from the National Association of Theatre Owners, there are 39,777 screens nationwide. Of those, 32,230 (81 percent) were digital as of Nov. 26.
The trend leaves single-screen theaters like the Orpheum with the tough choice of spending tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade or close their doors.
Orpheum owner Rusty Fletcher was faced with the same dilemma; he chose to upgrade to digital.
"It was either that or I close," Fletcher said. "There are going to be a lot of theaters closing. I thought we had more time. It came like a thief in the night. All of a sudden it was here."
Fletcher said the new upgrades will cost him around $75,000, but that figure may increase as other costs pop up while the system is being installed.
"I've heard some other theaters are looking up to $150,000," he said. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed my sound equipment won't be much of a problem there. It's not supposed to be, but you can never tell with this stuff."
The Orpheum Theater has been using film longer than most Kodiak residents have been alive. It opened its doors before the Kodiak Daily Mirror did in 1940.
"To me it's the end of an era, which I don't think should have been killed because film imposes a sense of discipline," he said. "You have to know how to handle and work with film."
While viewers won't notice any major differences, aside from the lack of speckles and dots in the corners from reel changeovers, the people working behind the scenes at the theaters will. Employees no longer have to cut the heads and tails off of multiple film reels to connect them and spool them on film projectors. Instead, their biggest tool is a mouse as they navigate a simple computer application and a digital projector.
Fletcher expects to face a whole new set of challenges with the digital system. If he runs into a problem with the equipment, the company who supplied the projector can run a diagnostics test using the Internet. Anything more complicated than that, a team will have to fly to Kodiak.
"If I hit a button and it doesn't start, I don't know what to do," Fletcher said. "More than likely I'll have to have a technician come to look at it. With film, if I have a problem I could run up for 10 or 15 minutes and have it back on the screen."
The Orpheum's digital system will play high-definition and 3D movies. Fletcher said he might have to consider charging more for 3D films.
"On the 3-D not only will I have to pay part of my ticket to take to the film company, but also a certain amount of each ticket goes to the RealD 3-D (the 3-D movie technology specialist) people," he said. "We may have to go up. We'll have to see what happens. This is all new to me."
The changeover at the Orpheum Theater will occur in January.
The Billiken Theater at Coast Guard Base Kodiak, open only to Coast Guardsmen and their guests, just went through the upgrade.
"The whole movie industry is switching to digital projectors," said Sally Troxell, manager of the Billiken Theater. "Next year film won't really be available at any rate."
An off-island crew came in to install the new equipment at the Billiken Theater on Wednesday. All of the 35mm equipment was taken out of the theater, and a new screen was installed. The new screen is the same size as the old screen, but is silver instead of white, a requirement for the high-definition system.
"We're putting in the 3D as well," Troxell said, explaining that it was an add-on. "It's just more economical if we do everything at once."
Troxell expects viewers will be happy with the 3D addition, since the base has had requests for it.
"I think there will be 36 3D movies released next year," Troxell said. "I'm not sure how many we'll get, but in December we'll show three 3-D movies."