All movies were, as of early 2013, only going to be available in digital format, and all theatres would have to upgrade in order to run them, an upgrade which was expected to cost upwards of $70,000.
Small towns everywhere were panicking.
How were these small rural centres, some with only a few hundred residents, supposed to come up with that kind of money, especially in today's economic climate?
Over the past few years, the Gaiety Theatre in Glenboro has faced changing times, and changing technology, and met the challenge. Initially, concerns were for the upkeep of the historic building, regular maintenance and upgrades which were required to keep the building in good repair.
Then came things such as new flooring, new seats, and finally, a siding project to upgrade the exterior, and a new illuminated sign. All of this was done through fundraising, grants, and the tireless efforts and support of the community.
And then, when it was believed that the theatre's upgrades were complete, came the news that the projection system, only purchased a few years prior, was going to have to be replaced with a new system.
But in Glenboro, the answer came through the community. People were generous with their private donations, local businesses stepped forward, fundraisers were arranged, grants applied for, and today, at the beginning of February, the new projection system is not only installed, but paid for.
The Gaiety holds a special place in the hearts of many local residents, and its long history is part of this town's culture, but Glenboro is not the only town facing this challenge, and some of our rural neighbours have not yet reached their goal.
“I'm not concerned,” says Ian Milliken of Reston. “We're gradually getting there, and along the way we've also been fortunate to get some donations specifically intended for renovations to the theatre, as well. We'll get there.”
The Reston Memorial Theatre, built in 1948 as a memorial to local veterans of World Wars I and II, is right on Main Street and a big part of the town's heritage. They show movies on Friday and Saturday nights throughout the year, and expect to have the digital system installed by spring.
“We do an annual fundraising banquet,” says Milliken. “That raised about $5,600 this year, and the school has been very good, they've raised about $3,000. Private donations have been very generous, and the RM of Pipestone has agreed to give us an additional 25 per cent of what we raise.”
The story is much the same in Neepawa. The Roxy Theatre has been a part of the town's history from the vaudeville days, with the building having been built in 1905 to replace the original Opera House, which burnt down the year before.
It was open by 1906, and operated as a stage theatre for vaudeville, burlesque and various other entertainments until the early 1930s, when it was converted to The Roxy Theatre. The advent of television, however, proved to be too much for the small theatre to overcome, and it was closed for several years, before reopening in 1988.
The Roxy shows films on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings throughout the winter, and Wednesday and Thursday evenings through the summer.
The theatre has had its challenges, even before the announcement was made that the projection equipment would have to be replaced.
“We replaced the boiler four years ago,” says Marilyn Dietrich, one of a dozen members who serve on the board which runs the Roxy. “And then, just two years after that, the roof started to leak. We had thought that our next project would be the walls, but then the projection equipment needed to be replaced with the new digital system.”
Neepawa's fundraising efforts have been very successful. Between public donations, and private fundraising efforts, including one industrious Neepawa resident who has been selling homemade pies for $7 each, with every penny going to the theatre, to the former Neepawa resident who challenged the town's youth to raise money, promising to match every dollar up to $5,000 (to which the youth of the town have responded to very well, surpassing the $5,000 goal by quite a bit), the town has gotten behind the theatre upgrade project in a big way, and they have raised enough to pay for the equipment outright.
“Now, we're just raising money to pay for the incidental stuff,” says Dietrich. “The little things that need to be done, electrical, carpentry, that sort of thing.”
The board of the Roxy also held fundraising dinner on Feb. 16, with silent auction, 50/50 draw, and dance.
“It's a Valentine's Day theme,” she says. “Because the Roxy is the heart of our community.”
These theatres are the traditional heart of many communities. They provided rare opportunities for entertainment prior to the ease of satellite television, the internet, even, in some cases, radio.
Boissevain has performed their own minor miracle. Shortly after replacing their projector with a new reel system, the theatre had to close down due to building issues in 2009.
They were still in the process of paying off the loan for that system, and fundraising for a replacement facility, when news came to them that the relatively new reel system would have to be replaced once more, with the new digital technology.
This means that, over the past several years, the community has replaced their projection system twice, and developed a new facility. They have paid off the original loan on the reel system, raised nearly $400,000 for the new facility, and $60,000 for the new digital projection system.
They currently have about $20,000 outstanding, but with donations still coming in and several fundraising activities planned for 2013, they are certain they will have this paid off soon.
“I've been really impressed with the attendance since we installed the new system,” says Brad Peters, theatre manager. “We call our theatre a community theatre, and it will be here as long as the community continues to come and support it.”
In Pilot Mound, the Tivoli theatre isn't even at the point of thinking about digital projection. After closing their theatre due to building issues two and a half years ago, they're still fundraising to redevelop.
“We're hoping to move into space in the Millennium Recreation Complex,” says Sharon Currie. “We have a small group of very committed people who are working towards this.”
The 3rd Annual Tivoli Ladies Night, to be held on February 23rd from 7-12pm at the Pilot Mound Kinsmen Hall, is in support of the ongoing effort to get the theatre site developed.
Tickets are $20 each, available at the door, and more information can be attained by calling Sharon Currie at 825-3867.
“Then we can worry about fundraising for the digital projection system,” Currie says.
Many small towns across the province are facing the same challenge: upgrade your equipment to meet the requirements of the industry, or close down.
They have raised funds locally, applied for grants, and accessed corporate funding programs, but they all share a determination to remain open, despite the challenge of raising the tens of thousands of dollars required; a challenge which sometimes seems insurmountable for a small, rural town.
The National Assoc. of Theatre Owners estimates that the change to digital, and the accompanying price tag of $70-100,000, will cause as many as 20 percent of movie theatres to close. Other sources estimate that the closure rate will be even higher in the prairie provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with an expected 30 percent closure rate.
Small theatres, especially small privately owned theatres, often cannot justify the expense when their revenues are considered.
The movie theatre is a large part of small-town life here, and it saddens many to see it threatened. Recreational opportunities in small towns and rural centres can sometimes be few, and the existence of a theatre provides a community event which is available several evenings each week, bringing community members out of their homes to interact with others, or simply to enjoy a few hours of entertainment without having to drive into the city.
Saving these theatres, keeping them up-to-date and operational, is as important to our culture as our agricultural fairs, community bonspiels, and socials.