Jackson's theater facing digital challenge: Historic facility aiming to keep up with new technology
JACKSON -- A couple with a long history in the theater enjoy the ups and downs of owning a historic theater in southwest Minnesota, despite its many challenges.
"We'd been looking a really long time for a theater of our own ... and finally found one that we decided to try," said Nikki Schwartz, who owns the Historic State Theatre in Jackson with her husband, Mike Schwartz.
They purchased the old theater Dec. 9, 2002, and offered the first movie showing three weeks later. Since then, they've been running the only movie theater in Jackson County, with its vintage silver screen-film setup and beautiful art nouveau décor.
Nikki started working in movie theaters in 1987 in Denver, when she was in high school. Mike grew up working at a drive-in theater in Lusk, Wyo., where he started around 1978 -- as a fifth-grader.
The Schwartzes both have jobs outside the State Theatre. Nikki is a cook at Jackson Middle School, and Mike books films for movie theaters in North Dakota, Minnesota, Idaho, Missouri, Montana and New Jersey.
The digital challenge
Keeping any historic building up is difficult, but upkeep for the State hasn't been that tough, compared to a new problem theater operators have not faced in the past.
"Our biggest challenge right now is the digital cinema," Mike said.
The transition to digital from the existing film setup will cost approximately $70,000.
"It's going to be a hard transition for a lot of theaters," Nikki said. "And a lot of theaters will close because of it."
A digital system would be computer-operated, so the Schwartzes would need to purchase not only a computer, but also a cooling system to keep the computer from overheating. The sound system would need to be upgraded. The screen would need to be replaced, the old projector removed, and film -- like the musicians who once played tunes during silent pictures -- would become a thing of the past.
"For us to fit in with the program we're in, we have to be converted by September of 2012 ... or actively (making) progress" Nikki said. "Eventually, 35-millimeter film will no longer exist, so we have been diligent in ... planning for the future."
The price tag for digital conversion is steep, but the State is by no means alone in facing the upgrading challenge. Every theater is facing the same difficulty.
The Schwartzes hope the greater Jackson community will rally around them and the State Theatre because it values the opportunities the movie theater presents for residents of all ages, from small children to seniors.
"We need help," Nikki said. "We're taking donations for it from the community. ... We'll probably try and do some fundraising. We just put a roof on last year, and there's just no way ... it's not possible for us to do it, it's not. We're barely keeping it open, and it's because we're passionate about it."
Community organizations have already begun to pitch in to help defray the costs of the upgrade. The Jackson Preservation Alliance donated $100 and 25 calendars, which sell for $12 each. The local beautification committee gave $1,400.
"The towns that have singlescreen theaters -- and there are some that do rather well -- it's because their community really values the fact that they do have that as an option for their children," Nikki said. "You hear people talk about how there's nothing to do for their kids, so it would be really sad to lose something that they do have for their kids."
Main Street theaters can be an important asset in keeping downtowns thriving, Nikki said.
And the Jackson community does value its theater, Mike said, although sometimes that feeling isn't reflected well in attendance figures.
"Statistics show that 12 percent go to movies on a regular basis. If that 12 percent would come here, we would be OK. We wouldn't have any problems," Nikki said. "The hardest thing is when somebody comes up to you and says that they went and saw the movie that you're playing out of town. And that happens. And that hurts."
The Schwartzes see hopeful signs in the small community of Sherburn, where the theater raised $30,000 in a little more than a month for the digital upgrades it needed.
"They just really came together," Mike said.
the big picture
The Schwartzes have to be careful when they choose what movies to present to Jackson. Which films do well and which films tank isn't always predictable, and the quality of a movie doesn't seem to have much to do with it.
Horror movies, for example, don't do well at the State Theatre.
"If they don't work, we can't bring them in. We've lost money on a lot of movies," Nikki said. "The film rental has gone up a bunch, and minimum for a movie is $250 ... plus you're looking at $100 for shipping of the print. So it happens -- we've lost money on movies, and we try really hard not to."
Movies that do well are movies that appeal to a wide audience,from children to families to seniors. Movies that don't do well, ironically, are movies that are aimed at the demographic the movie industry targets the most often: young males.
"Those are the ones who leave town, mostly. If we can play it on the release date, that helps, but we can't always play them on the release date," Nikki said, explaining how the film companies require big advances or guarantees for movies to play on their release dates. "So that's a risk. We try not to do that very often. We have to be pretty confident that we're not going to lose money on it."
The "Twilight" series has done well at the State so far, partly because the Schwartzes have been careful to play them on their release dates. Had they waited, the movie's target audience would have gone elsewhere to see it rather than waiting for the hometown theater to catch up.
"It really just depends on the crowd. It's not even so much the genre. We've had some that have done well here that haven't necessarily done well nationally," Nikki said. '"Seabiscuit' did OK nationally, but it did really well here, because it hit everybody from kids to seniors, and they really enjoyed it."
Predicting which films will lose money isn't easy. "Happy Feet," which received positive reviews from critics and audiences, lost money at the State Theatre. "Kangaroo Jack," universally panned by critics and loathed by the majority of people who actually went to see it, did really well. "Daddy Day Care," which critics hated even more, also made money for the State.
"Yogi Bear" played better than "Tangled," probably because people went out of town in order to see "Tangled," but wouldn't bother going out of town to see "Yogi Bear."
"If we can't play it fast on the release date for the movies that are super big, we may as well not even bother, because they've already gone out of town to see it," Nikki said. "But we still play them for the ones that are loyal, even though sometimes maybe we shouldn't."
Crowds at the State vary from two to 100 people, but the average draw is about 20 people. When the State hosts a midnight showing, however, sometimes 300 people show up.
"We brought midnight showings to the region," Nikki said.
The bright side of
the silver screen
The changes and the costs do have a silver lining, however, especially for movie fans.
"It's a much higher quality than anyone could get at home. It's commercial-grade, and they have very high standards for it," Nikki explained. "They ... didn't really start rolling out (changes) until they were confident that the images produced by the new digital equipment surpassed the images of the 35-mm film."
The improvements may also afford other opportunities for the State, which may be able to offer live opera or concert feeds to small communities, where chances to see those types of performances are rare.
"That's why I think it will benefit smaller communities more so than, say, big cities," Nikki said. "Big cities aren't going to care about playing concerts when people can go to the concert, but somebody might not want to drive three hours to go to a concert and pay $100 a ticket."
The best part of running a movie theater for Nikki is watching the movies and talking to customers about them, whereas Mike just enjoys the movie industry in general.
"Jackson's a really nice community," Nikki said. "It really does have a lot going for it."
The Schwartzes also hope to continue preserving the history of the State Theatre, and though the costs are challenging, they also hope to continue making improvements. They would like to redo the marquee and replace the seats in the theater.
Constructed in 1926 by Frank Matuska, the theater cost $50,000 to build, according to "Celebrating 150: Jackson, Minnesota," and it still features its original silver screen and many of its original, opulent Art Deco details.
"We really do love it, and it's really a part of who we are," Nikki said. "And we really, really hope that we can keep it going and get it through the process that will keep it going for generations to come."