LAKE PLACID - Helping small-town movie theaters with the upcoming conversion from film to digital projection has been labeled a regional priority by the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, which solicits state grants for northern New York.
John Huttlinger, president of the Lake Placid-based Adirondack Film Society, said the council recognizes the importance of movie theaters in rural North Country communities. He said his group, which recently teamed up with 13 movie theaters across the region to explore funding opportunities to help with the conversion, will soon meet with state and local officials to develop a plan to keep theaters open.
"The fact that it's a council priority means that the council has identified this project as one that's potentially vital for the region and that they're willing to put their support behind the project even though it's not in the current round of funding," Huttlinger told the Enterprise. "What I think that does for the project is it sets it up for success in next year's round of funding."
By the end of 2013, the film industry will complete a conversion from celluloid film to digital film. That means movie theaters across the country will need to replace movie screens, projectors and sound equipment. The cost of making the switch could range from $80,000 to $125,000 per screen, depending on the size of the theater. The North Country is home to 37 movie screens at 13 theaters that must either convert or close, meaning the total cost could be nearly $3 million.
At a public forum this summer, several theater owners, including Reg Clark of the Palace Theatre in Lake Placid and Cory Hanf of the Hollywood Theater in AuSable Forks, said the conversion would be too expensive for them on their own. Theaters across the North Country employ more than 120 people and generate an economic impact of more than $11 million, according to AFS.
Garry Douglas, president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce and co-chairman of the region's economic development council, told the Enterprise community revitalization and sustainability are two of the council's "areas of strategic importance." The council recently submitted a one-year "action assessment" report to the state.
"The survival and future of the independent movie theaters in places like Tupper Lake, AuSable Forks, Indian Lake, Schroon Lake and Lake Placid, in the face of a challenge such as digital conversion, is seen as important to both of these aims," Douglas wrote in an email to the Enterprise.
"In the Adirondacks, they offer something that otherwise would be inaccessible," he added. "Maintaining the region's theaters is a clear component of starting to make the Adirondacks attractive for young families, along with broadband deployment, small business development and other aims in the plan. And it offers another activity for tourists, especially in the evening."
Huttlinger said theater conversion aid could be inserted into the council's plan for next year, which could lead to funding through the council. He said the support alone could add weight to grant applications filed with other state agencies and private foundations.
"The overall success of this project, I think, will depend on a combination of public support from various agencies plus private support," Huttlinger said.
Using state funds to help private businesses is a controversial idea, and the effort will likely need the sort of private support Huttlinger is talking about. State Sen. Betty Little said in a recent interview that it would be unfortunate to lose theaters, but she's not sure the state can afford to buy the equipment necessary to make the conversion.
An unscientific online poll the Enterprise conducted in August asked readers if state tax money should be allocated to help movie theaters with the conversion. More than 600 votes were cast, with 57 percent against the idea, 39 percent for it and 4 percent undecided.
Huttlinger said this situation is unique because movie theaters often serve as community centers.
"They're also historic and cultural in that they're part of people's lives," he said. "The fact that they may disappear would mean it would create a void, both from an economic standpoint and from a cultural and historic standpoint."
Huttlinger added that moviegoers in these communities would have to drive a long way to find a theater, often an hour or more.
During a visit to Lake Placid in August, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the regional economic development council should take the lead in looking for ways to help theaters.
"Their job is to identify the economic needs within the region, prioritize those needs, and then they come to the state, and we figure out how we can help," the governor said.
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or cmorris@