Balboa Theatre crosses digital divide

UPDATE 8/30 10:24 p.m.: With 814 backers, the Balboa Theatre has surpassed its goal of $75,000 in their Kickstarter campaign.

Since early August, the Balboa Theatre — one of The City’s last remaining neighborhood movie houses — has been fighting for its life.

As of right now, things are looking pretty good.

The Outer Richmond’s 87-year-old Balboa Theatre is battling the same challenge which has claimed countless small theaters worldwide: Go digital, or go dark.

In fact, that’s the name of their crowdfunding campaign.

In order to continue showing movies, the Balboa must upgrade their projection equipment from 35mm film to digital by the end of the year.

With just over $2,500 left to raise, the Balboa’s Kickstarter campaign has been a success. 809 backers have brought the theater to the brink of its $75,000 goal.

Adam Bergeron, who owns the Balboa Theatre with his wife, keeps close watch of incoming donations on his smartphone. The support so far, Bergeron said, has been overwhelmingly positive:

“The theater is here for the neighborhood, it’s here for The City. […] And it’s clear that people do care.”

While the Balboa’s immediate future is looking secure, there’s still time for small movie house lovers to put your money where your popcorn goes.

The Balboa’s $75,000 Kickstarter only guarantees an upgrade for one of its two auditoriums. The total cost for projection and sound upgrades will cost $150,000.

Where the extra funds will come from is still anyone’s guess.

Joel Goulet, manager of the Balboa, told SFBay contributions exceeding the Kickstarter’s $75,000 would go directly towards funding the complete retrofit:

“[A full upgrade for both auditoriums] will give us the freedom to show the movies we want to show; to show the movies people want to see.”

Equipment upgrades are crucial now because the days of 35mm film reels are whirring to a stop, said Goulet. By the end of 2013, most major production companies will cease releasing new films on celluloid and opt for digital hard drives instead.

According to Goulet, the Balboa team waited as long as they could before converting to digital. He told SFBay one of the reasons why is because they simply love the old format:

“There’s something cool about being one of the last theaters to show 35mm films. But if we keep waiting, we’ll miss the boat.”

And a seat on the boat is a pricey one.

The switch to digital will save Hollywood distributors about $1 billion annually, but the costs are externalized onto exhibitors who show the films.

A single digital projector can cost anywhere between $50,000-$100,000 — a daunting bill for struggling theater owners.

Milt Moritz, the regional president of the National Association of Theatre Owners in California and Nevada, said it’s a reality that many movie houses will fall in the digital conversion:

“The transition to digital has been going on for a number of years. … Unfortunately some theaters are just not able to make the transition due to the cost, as well as the long range commitment needed to amortize the cost.”

The process of digital conversion, though, has been a long time coming.

In 1999, San Francisco’s now-defunct Coronet Theatre had one of only four digital projectors in the United States. Now, 100,000 digital screens are expected by 2015.

If the Balboa Theatre — which celebrated its 87th birthday in March — was unable to raise the cash from their Kickstarter, it would likely join the ghosts of movie houses past.

The number of theaters expected to not survive the digital conversion is estimated to rise up to 1,000, or 20-percent, of theaters across the nation.

Still, Moritz, who represents 97 percent of movie theaters operating in California and Nevada, said the exact figures are hard to pinpoint.

But even if theaters can afford upgrades, the death of 35mm brings other casualties.

*               *               *

On a recent afternoon, Goulet showed SFBay the historic theater’s projection equipment. With the matinee showing of “The Wolverine” in full swing, the projection room rumbled as spools of 35mm spun and fed itself — frame by frame — through a 70’s-era projector.

For more than 100 years, skilled projectionists have operated these machines in some capacity. But with new digital projectors that can be programmed with a few pushes of a button, projectionists have begun looking for new jobs.

Goulet, who’s worked as a projectionist for the past decade, said the dying profession signifies an end of an era:

“Soon this will all be gone. And no one will know how to use any of it except for like, one guy in town.”

Cinephiles may mourn the passing of 35mm, but Bergeron said there will be benefits to going digital.

For one, there’s a sharper picture and crisp sound. Unlike film, hard drives aren’t prone to scratches, degradation or focus issues.

Top of the line digital projectors can have 3D capabilities, and even program auditorium lights and sound volume. The technology, according to the Balboa’s assistant manager Daven Hayes, is “beautiful.”

Bergeron, who also operates the Vogue Theater, said it should take about a month to update the Balboa’s first auditorium which seats 220. If the Kickstarter campaign wraps by Sept. 27, he expects upgrades will be complete by Halloween.

*               *               *

The prospect of the Balboa Theatre shuttering its doors has been troubling to many in the beachside Richmond.

On many evenings when the fog rolls down Balboa Street, the theater’s flashing red marquee is the only sign of life along the business corridor.

Josephine Finlay, co-owner of the Hockey Haven sports bar opposite the theater, recently brought her four-year-old granddaughter to watch “Finding Nemo” at the Balboa’s Popcorn Palace, a Saturday morning showing of kid-friendly movies.

Finlay, who grew up in the Richmond District, told SFBay:

“I started watching movies there 60 years ago — from my childhood to my grandmotherhood!”

With its future looking hopeful, more exciting years are left at the Balboa Theatre.

Bergeron hopes to serve food plus beer and wine, and build a parklet outside building. With the help of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, a local non-profit, they’ve already updated chairs, paint and installed a new heating system.

Jack Rix, who ran the Haight’s Red Vic Movie House until 2011 with his wife Betsy, said the costly digital conversion influenced their decision to close the 31-year-old theater.

Even after the fundraiser ends, Rix told SFBay he hopes the community will continue supporting the Balboa by watching movies there:

“We absolutely hope that everyone opens up their pocketbooks to help the Balboa out; however, it is just as important to support the theater by actually attending movies there. In the end, that is what is going to help them out the most.”

To donate to the Balboa Theatre’s Kickstarter, visit the campaign before Sept. 27. Pledges — starting at $10 — will receive goodies, such as free popcorn, movie tickets and more.

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