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Theater closing a sign of times, experts say

Urbana movie theater closes after a century in city’s downtown.Switch to digital, changing customer habits create tough times for some theaters.

The abrupt closing of Urbana Twin Cinema is symptomatic of changing customer habits and of theaters that have not converted to digital projectors, industry observers said Tuesday.

Champaign County residents who want to see a movie in theaters will now have to drive to places like Springfield and Bellefontaine. Springfield-based Chakeres Theaters Inc. closed Urbana’s theater Monday after 40 years in the city.

Residents found out about the closing by a sign on the building that said the theater had closed and advised customers: “Please visit the Bellefontaine Cinemas 8.”

No one from Chakeres would agree to an interview Tuesday with the Springfield News-Sun concerning the closing of the Urbana theater or the future of other Chakeres theaters in the region.

Theater industry observers, however, said the future could be rough for some smaller companies.

Currently, all of the Chakeres-owned theaters run on 35 mm film projectors, except for Cinema 10 in Springfield, which plays films on digital projectors.

The fate of movie theaters that don’t convert soon to digital projection varies, according to a spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners, who said some will be bought by other companies and some will go out of business.

“It’s the biggest transition the industry has seen since the advent of sound,” Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the theater owners association, said Tuesday.

While no firm date is set for the end of film print production, by the end of 2014, a worldwide lack of film stock and the closing of processing labs could spell the end.

Also, the majority of movie theaters in the U.S. have already made the jump from showing movies on actual film to receiving and showing the latest releases digitally, which the industry promises a “perfect picture” at each presentation.

To date, 90 percent of screens and 80 percent of U.S. movie theaters have gone to digital projection, according to the theater owners association, making the Springfield-based Chakeres chain among the last holdouts.

“It’s a large expense for one,” Corcoran said. “Some are looking at their bottom line. Some never believed this day would come. There are tough business decisions you need to make, and this is one of the toughest you’ll make.”

The cost to convert each screen to digital, chiefly the purchase of a digital projector, is about $70,000, he said, but that’s down from $150,000 a decade ago.

The transition has been a decade in the making, Corcoran said, and most programs to financially assist smaller theater companies with the upgrade to digital have now closed.

The largest theater chain in the nation remains Knoxville, Tenn.-based Regal Entertainment Group, which operates 7,318 screens at 574 sites.

One of the last remaining options for a theater owner worried about cost is a local fundraising campaign or a fundraising campaign via a website like Kickstarter, Corcoran said.

“We’re getting fairly close to the completion of this process,” he said.

Movie studios might still strike film prints to serve economically depressed regions of the world where the conversion is slower – Southern Europe and Latin America, in particular – but the end is nigh for film, and studios will weigh the decision to make prints on a movie by movie basis, he said.

When sound movies – or talkies – emerged in the late 1920s, they co-existed for a time with silent films. But silent theaters ultimately didn’t last.

“It became, ‘Have sound in your theater or get out of the business,’” Corcoran said.

Wittenberg University Professor of Communications Matt Smith said new cultural norms could be another factor for the closing of the Urbana Twin Cinema.

He noted people today do not feel the need to run out and see a movie as soon as it comes out like they used to.

“People are willing to wait five months for a movie to come out on Netflix or cable and watch it for free or nearly free,” said Smith.

Chakeres Theatres Inc. owned the property at 216 S. Main, and CEO Phillip Chakeres said he plans to put the building up for sale, according the Urbana Daily Citizen.

The loss of the movie theater is an economic hit for the Urbana’s downtown district, according to John Carmazzi. He owns and operates Carmazzi’s Deli and Candy Store at 100 S. Main St.

“We could always see a difference when the cinema was open,” said Carmazzi. He said he could count on kids and other moviegooers to stop at his store before a show and buy candy to sneak into the movies.

Besides a loss of business, Carmazzi and his wife Michelle said they will miss the memories that went along with the historic theater built in the early 1900s. Michelle Carmazzi said she remembered crying her way home from the theater after seeing the film Bambi.

John Carmazzi said he could remember going to the theater in 1939, a year before the building was bought by Warren Grimes and turned into the Gloria Theater, named after Grimes’ daughter. Chakeres Theaters Inc. bought the cinema from Grimes in 1970 and re-named it Urbana Twin Cinema.

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