Ready or not, community theaters around the country are bracing for the wave of the future as film studios move from shooting new movies on traditional 35mm film to an exclusively digital format - and Oglebay Institute's Towngate Theatre and Cinema is no exception.
However, as the cost of adapting to the digital projection format threatens other small community theaters around the country with extinction, Towngate - which hosts live stage productions in addition to showing motion pictures - plans to invest about $120,000 this year in renovations officials believe will enhance the theater experience for audiences and performers alike, according to Oglebay Institute Executive Director Kathleen McDermott.
The dilemma raised by the evolving technology began receiving widespread attention in 2009 when "Avatar," which would become the highest-grossing film in the history of American cinema, was released in digital-only format, sparking a rush to convert among many theaters.
Photo by Ian Hicks
As many community theaters that lack digital projection capabilities are facing an uncertain future, Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre and Cinema in Wheeling is investing $120,000 in renovations.
Many film industry leaders, eyeing significant savings in distribution costs, have predicted it won't be long before shooting on film becomes the exception rather than the rule - perhaps by the end of this year.
McDermott said the institute has "some feelers out" regarding converting to digital projection, but it will take time to determine whether the return on such an investment - potentially $60,000 to $70,000 - would justify the expense.
"We'll still be able to do any films that are in the old format," she said, adding that screening films on DVD would be another option, though the theater wouldn't be able to charge admission because of licensing rules.
Renovation plans for Towngate include upgrades to the building's social room and kitchen, new stage lighting and curtains. McDermott said work will begin in earnest later this month and should wrap up in late spring or early summer.
"It's just going to be really sleek and much more modern-looking," said McDermott, stressing the upgrades will remain consistent with the historic feel of the venue, the former Zion Lutheran Church near Centre Market.
And over the next few months, McDermott said, a group of Carnegie Mellon University students will be working with the theater on audience engagement research as part of a semester-long capstone project.
Not only will the project be valuable research experience for the students, she said, but it will also benefit the theater by providing a fresh perspective on what its patrons want through a process it otherwise wouldn't have had the resources to complete on its own.