Times Movie Critic
Calling Tampa Theatre "a very beautiful picture frame," president and CEO John Bell confirmed Friday that the picture is going digital, while the historic frame remains the same.
By the end of this year, the landmark 86-year-old movie palace will join the 21st century wave of high-tech digital cinema, as traditional film stock gets phased out at theaters. Otherwise, Tampa Theatre won't be able to continue showing first-run hits like The Artist and The King's Speech.
Bell said digital conversion won't require closing Tampa Theatre for any length of time. Moviegoers should only notice a sharper image on the screen, surrounded by the trademark Mediterranean grandeur.
As Casablanca's Dooley Wilson might sing: "The fundamental things apply, as film goes by."
"We're not going to alter the aesthetics of Tampa Theatre," said Bell, now in his 25th year running the show. "We'll always be faithful to that. But the technology used to present movies will need to evolve with whatever the industry is dictating."
Change is a matter of survival for Tampa Theatre and hundreds of other independently owned venues worldwide. Digital cinema downloaded by computer is cheaper to produce and transport, and doesn't erode with time, wear or tear.
"You won't find a distributor who'll go on record saying there's a drop-dead date for not sending out film prints," Bell said. "But the writing is clearly on the wall that sometime in 2013, if they don't completely go away, that film prints will become increasingly scarce."
Nearly two-thirds of the 39,640 total U.S. movie screens were digitally converted over the past decade, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. The remainder will either convert, or risk going out of business.
"For years people have been saying digital cinema is coming, and the rollout has been happening," Bell said. "But it's going so fast now that we just can't wait any longer."
Bell said contractor bidding hasn't begun but research suggests the conversion project will cost between $100,000 and $150,000. The average multiplex cost is about $75,000 per screen, but Tampa Theatre's unique structure — especially its steep pitch from projection booth to screen — calls for a specialized projector.
Bell said "a combination of grants, gifts and cash reserves" will be used to fund the project, including audio upgrades as well.
Before the conversion begins, Tampa Theatre must remodel its projection booth. Updates include replacing a deteriorating plaster ceiling, bolstering insulation and installing a separate air conditioning and humidity control system.
"We're getting ready to drop really high-tech equipment in there," Bell said, "and the environment as it stands now is not in good shape for that."
Bell said the theater's 35mm projectors will be retained, as a "legacy technology" and to enable screenings of vintage movies available only on film.
While most multiplexes have gone digital, smaller independent venues have been slow in taking the leap. Ruskin Drive-In converted only last month. The most notable local holdout now is Beach Theater in St. Pete Beach.
Beach Theater owner Michael France said Friday that conversion doesn't seem possible right now. The Beach has been under financial strain, with dwindling attendance and unsuccessful efforts to attain not-for-profit status to lower expenses. Recently the theater closed for a week because its 35mm projector broke down.
"Ironically, the very few guys in the area who still know anything about 35mm are running around doing digital conversions," France said. "We absolutely cannot afford it right now. We're barely keeping the lights on.
"I do not want to see 35mm die out. There's just something nice about the look of a really nice 35mm print that you can't beat."
But when there's no choice, there's no room for sentimentality. Tampa Theatre's Bell is reluctant to spend so much but knows it must be done to survive.
"We're not a museum piece; we're an operating theater," Bell said. "The way the industry is, we must have this technology to stay current. If not, we won't be a first-run film house anymore."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.