Projection is bright for State Theatre now that it’s gone digital

pclark@modbee.comJanuary 11, 2014 

The State Theatre may have become an octogenarian on Christmas Day, but it received a thoroughly modern gift from the Modesto community days before the holiday.

The 80-year-old historic downtown theater, which specializes in showing art house films, went digital in late December thanks to a fundraising campaign that received overwhelming support from Modesto-area residents.

The nonprofit theater needed $200,000 to switch from 35 mm film to digital projection in order to keep receiving movies from distributors. General Manager Sue Richardson said the State lost out on several quality films in 2013 because 35 mm prints were not available as more and more distributors converted to digital-only.

The fundraising campaign – a dual effort within the community and through Internet crowd-funding site Indiegogo – isn’t over: The historic downtown theater still needs about $37,000 to pay off the equipment. But Richardson said she and the State’s board of directors have faith the community will come through.

“(The) board is comprised of some very positive, optimistic people, and their enthusiasm and unwavering belief that we could do this kept us moving forward. ... It became clear that we had community support,” Richardson said in an email interview.

The switch began in early December, installed by Boston Light & Sound, and was completed Dec. 20. The next day, the theater screened its first film in digital, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” with what Richardson said were “lots of white knuckles, to say the least,” because of the learning curve on the complex system.

Since then, the critically acclaimed Robert Redford film “All Is Lost” was screened earlier this month, which was an “amazing experience,” according to State board member Rod Lowe.

“The show was great. The digital projection was amazing. The sound system we put in a year ago was much more enhanced,” Lowe said. He urges residents to go to the State and experience it for themselves. Fundraising efforts over the years, he said, have allowed operators to refurbish the theater and add a Dolby 20-speaker cinema sound system, in addition to the recent digital conversion.

“We don’t want to lose our momentum,” Lowe said.

A kickoff event for the Going, Going, Gone Digital campaign in October raised $80,000. On Nov. 18, the theater launched a 45-day fundraising campaign on Indiegogo. The online site allows people worldwide – the State received a couple of checks from the Netherlands, Richardson said – to donate in exchange for “perks.” The State campaign perks included T-shirts and tickets.

But about 95 percent of the money came from the community, Richardson said, with $23,315 received through Indiegogo. Local donations have been big and small, with checks of $10 to $10,000. The largest donations came from people who asked to remain anonymous.

“We started receiving checks ... in early October following our fundraiser, and the momentum kept building from there,” Richardson said. “It was amazing. It was gratifying. And it was a wonderful validation that the community believes in what we’re doing and wants to see us succeed.”

Succeeding hinged on the conversion to digital, Richardson said.

“Quite literally, there would have been very few films, and the State as you now know it would not exist,” she said. “We would still be a performing-arts venue, and a rental facility, but the film program and our Youth Education Program would be greatly diminished, if they existed at all. As far as we were concerned, going dark was not an option, but many small independent theaters have done just that.”

The move to digital has hurt small, independent theaters across the country. Rolling Stone magazine wrote an article this fall on how the conversion was “killing independent movie theaters.”

Since it opened on Christmas Day in 1934, the State had used celluloid film to project movies. But more and more movie houses have converted to digital prints recently, which can be transferred electronically without the need for physical reels. Digital prints cost distributors less and provide a clearer picture on screen.

Before the upgrade, the 560-seat theater had only a 35 mm projector and a small digital projector that plays DVDs and Blu-rays. The theater will continue to use those projectors when needed, Richardson said.

To upgrade, the theater brought in “thousands of feet of wire, a huge server, a new exhaust system and more parts than a space shuttle, which is what our projection booth now looks like,” Richardson said. “We had to buy lots of dedicated software, a new iPad, a MacBook, and on and on it went. Plus, a lot of the cost to convert came from retrofitting this old building and replacing old, outdated equipment. Our projection booth hasn’t changed much in the last 80 years.”

Still, moving forward on the conversion without all the needed money in hand wasn’t without its worries, Richardson said, but the board decided to take the leap.

“The decision was made in early November to go forward with the installation of the digital projection system; we’d been working on the logistics for months already,” she said. “And then there was the bigger issue of not being able to get films, and going dark, and not being able to carry on our work with youth literacy programs that focus heavily on film. We took the chance, but there were just so many big red arrows pointing us toward ‘install now.’ 

Now, the fundraising effort continues.

“We are still reaching out to area foundations and families, filmgoers and State fans,” Richardson said. “We also submit grants. And donations are still trickling in. In the new year, we’re going to get this debt paid off, and we’re also going to focus our efforts on monthly donations that help sustain our film program.”

On Friday, the State began screening the Golden Globes-nominated Coen Brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a movie that would not have been available during the current awards season without the digital conversion.

Board member Lowe said the moviegoing experience at the State is completely different now and rivals that of the megaplexes. “People should come down and try the State again,” he said. “It’ll blow your mind.”

Bee staff writer Pat Clark can be reached at pclark@modbee.com.

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