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The digital age

Peterborough Community Theatre: New technology means new opportunities

  • The digital projection equipment at the Peterborough Community Theatre.
  • Roy Mills shows off the digital projection equipment at the Peterborough Community Theatre.
  • Roy Mills shows off the digital projection equipment at the Peterborough Community Theatre.
  • Roy Mills shows off the digital projection equipment at the Peterborough Community Theatre.

The Peterborough Community Theatre went digital in May, shutting down briefly so the latest projection technology could be installed. Now owners Roy and Judy Mills say the changeover has been a rousing success.

“We are up and running and it’s really great,” Judy Mills said on Thursday. “The image now fills the whole screen. It’s very bright, with lots of detail, and the sound is wonderful.”

In recent months, the owners of small independent theaters around the country have had to make an expensive transition as the movie industry phased out delivery of 35 millimeter film. In January, the Millses were considering closing the 99-year-old theater, because digital equipment would cost them at least $45,000. But instead, they put together a fundraising drive through the popular Kickstarter online site. They called the campaign “Go Digital or Go Dark,” and they eventually raised more than $54,000 from more than 500 backers. That allowed them to purchase and install the equipment needed to keep up with the times.

Roy Mills said the base unit that houses the computer for the projection system is a new model, one of the first to be installed anywhere in the nation. There were a few glitches getting it set up, but once it went online, there have been just three problems. “All operator errors, two of them my fault,” Roy said. “It’s been working great.”

For now, movies are still delivered physically to the theater, but instead of large packages with reels of film, the theater gets a much smaller hard drive, from which Roy can download the movies. That system won’t last much longer, he said. The computer is all set for the next generation of delivery, where files will be sent online from distributors to theaters.

“We’re about three steps away from being able to lock this door [to the projection room],” Roy said. “Nobody will need to be up here; it will all be online.”

The change has already reduced the amount of labor needed to show a movie.

“It’s been very easy for us,” Judy said. “It’s all automatic now, and we can still be downstairs selling popcorn when the movie starts.”

Judy said the systems makes it much easier to run previews, which can also be customized. Soon there will be a short video about the Kickstarter campaign that will list the names of everyone who made a contribution.

“People love to see their names on the screen,” Judy said. “We want to keep saying thanks.”

The successful campaign also allowed the couple to spruce up the theater.

“We ended up with about $8,000 more than we asked for,” Judy said. “We’ve had the theater cleaned, including the seats, and did some wiring. Once the final bills come in, we’ll know what else we can do.”

The digital conversion hasn’t solved all their problems, however. It may be difficult for the theater to continue to screen a movie the first week it comes out.

“We still have the same stipulations with the industry,” Judy said. “If we open a movie, we have to have it for three weeks. That’s a long time for a small-town theater with a limited population.”

She said they may shift to waiting a week or two before they get a new movie, so they will only have to show it for two weeks.

The Millses are also trying to work out arrangements to have more than one movie delivered at a time. Unlike the film system, which required manual changing of reels to set up a second movie, the digital system can easily be programmed to hold more than one film at a time.

“We want to work out an agreement so we can do 11 a.m. matinees for kids,” Judy said. “The studios are tough to deal with, though. They just say no. At the moment, we’re at a standstill on that.”

But overall, she’s quite pleased with all the changes.

“It’s really been amazing. It’s taken so much of the pressure off,” she said. “The customers love it and they’re very happy we’ve been able to stay open.”

Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.

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