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Military movie theaters going dark, digital

Mar. 16, 2013 - 04:54PM   |  
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WILMINGTON, Del. — Exactly half of the movie theaters on U.S. military bases around the world are going dark.

The other half are stepping into the future, to the delight of military moviegoers who live on a base where demand continued to warrant a silver screen. The chosen 60, like most commercial theaters, are going digital.

For Debra Larregui, an administrative assistant in the 436th Airlift Wing Safety Office who watched the James Bond flick “Skyfall” at Dover Air Force Base, Del., the change to digital doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal — just getting to keep the theater was good enough news.

“It’s a big, huge benefit,” said Larregui, who, as an Air Force brat whose husband wore the blue for 20 years, has watched films on bases all over the world. “You could take your kids to the theater and not worry about the prices.”

At Dover, that’s $2.50 for children and $5 for adults. It’s a bit more for 3-D movies, but substantially less than a ticket at a movie out on the town.

Had Dover not been chosen to make the switch, the selection for Larregui and other patrons might soon have become mighty sketchy.

By mid-year, said Judd Anstey of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which operates military movie theaters, 35mm prints will become scarce and, eventually, completely unavailable.

Nearly 80 percent of the nation’s 39,908 commercial movie theaters had made the switch from 35mm to digital as of last fall, USA TODAY found. But in that same report, the newspaper said that Hollywood’s switch to digital was imperiling small theaters that couldn’t afford the new digital projectors.

That’s not a problem for Dover — in part because of demand, but also because of the unique funding setup for on-base theaters.

AAFES operates on nonappropriated funds and is largely self-sustaining — less than 2 percent comes from tax dollars, Anstey said.

While overseas AAFES theaters show movies about a week after their release, those in the continental U.S. can offer only second-run movies — those that have already had their big run at the box office.

Since this begins about six weeks after a film’s commercial release, he said, “this requirement limits both pricing and attendance.”

So the command decided to analyze its theaters to determine whether demand warranted spending the roughly $120,000 it would take to convert a theater to the Dolby-surround, 7.1 digital format.

For Dover, the numbers were favorable. So were the financial arrangements. AAFES is paying the entire $7.4 million cost of the 60 conversions, Anstey said.

On-base movie fans, AAFES says, will enjoy not having to occasionally put up with scratched or torn films, as second-run flicks sometimes get bruised during their initial runs. James O’conners is enjoying not carting two 35-pound film canisters up the stairs at a time.

O’conners, once the projectionist at Fort Hood’s Palmer Theater, became a “supervisor” when that theater went digital last fall. He spends less time in the projection booth and more on other theater chores, such as pitching in on concessions.

“It’s like runnin’ a DVD player,” said O’conners. “Press the play button, make sure everything’s going. There’s no adjusting of lenses to focus it no more. There’s not very much manual stuff that you have to do with the new projector.”

Those huge reels of film? Gone. “It comes in on a hard drive,” he said. “It’s about 6 inches long and 3 inches wide.”

You might think the sort of person who would sign on to be a projectionist might miss the manual, old-school part of the job — loading and threading the films, performing the “changeover” from one reel to the other, and just hearing that ubiquitous clicking sound as the film moves through the projector.

O’conners, who’s been showing films for about four years, isn’t very old school. “No, not really,” he said with a chuckle.

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