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Saving the show: With help from the crowd, North Bend Theater is going digital

Holding a big 35-mm reel from the theater archives, Cindy Walker has known for years that the day of digital movies was coming. Today, Walker, owner of North Bend Theatre, is ready to take a fateful step. The theater is going digital with help from a crowdfunding drive this summer.  - Seth Truscott/Staff Photo
Holding a big 35-mm reel from the theater archives, Cindy Walker has known for years that the day of digital movies was coming. Today, Walker, owner of North Bend Theatre, is ready to take a fateful step. The theater is going digital with help from a crowdfunding drive this summer.
— image credit: Seth Truscott/Staff Photo

Cindy Walker refers to it as “the fun stuff.”

It’s the prom date requests on the marquee. It’s the weeklong ski film festivals, student film nights, the benefits for everyone from Relay for Life to the Mount Si wrestling team. There are countless ways for a small movie house to make a difference, and “I get to choose” what to do, says Walker.

After she and husband Jim bought the North Bend Theatre seven years ago, one thing that surprised them was how much fun they could have running this 250-seat cinema, one of about 20 legacy movie houses still running in Washington state.

“It’s absolutely a labor of love,” says Walker. “We enjoy such a sense of community. We know so many great people.”

But another lesson they soon learned is that time marches on. The digital era had dawned when they bought the 72-year-old movie house. Now, several face-lifts later, the theater is bracing for its biggest change yet—a full digital conversion.

“We’ve been put on notice that the holiday films will not be out on film this year,” Walker said. “We knew in 2011 that the date was going to be 2013.”

The campaign

On May 1, Walker started the “Save Our Theatre” campaign, raising money a the $200,000 digital conversion—a new, state-of-the-art projector. With the campaign in full swing, she plans to place the order in the next few weeks.

The Walkers turned to crowd funding for the conversion, going through GoFundMe.com (http://www.gofundme.com/2b5f9c). They also created a Facebook page for the drive, at https://www.facebook.com/events/335651483223439/.

Similar to other crowdfunding sites, they’re offering a set of rewards for donations, which range from a base of $50, which nets donators the “Theatre Lover” package, including two movie tickets and a thank-you in the newspaper. On the top end, the “Digital Deal” package includes permanent recognition at the theater: An engraved sidewalk star, chair plaques, two private parties, pre-screenings and lunch with the owners.

For Walker, the campaign asks one big question.

“How important is the theater to the community?” she asks. “We’re stewards of the theater. This is what the theater needs right now.”

A letter on the website describes the situation and pleads the case.

All we’ve done is a very simple ask,” Walker said. Before starting the campaign, she talked to other small theater owners to find out what works. The appeal to the public, with rewards, seems to be the way to go. North Bend Theater is already, four weeks in, a third of the way to its goal.

Theater friends and patrons have stepped up, making donations with their comments on the website.

“Giving back to NBT just seems like the natural thing to do,” wrote Kenneth and Karon Pauuw, when they gave on May 16.

“The North Bend Theatre is a cornerstone in our community,” Boxley’s owner Danny Kolke told the Record. “Having a movie theatre in North Bend helps bring families downtown in the evenings. And having new releases is really important to keeping entertainment local.”

What change means

The plan is for the digital projector to be installed in September. Between now and then, Walker has plenty of opportunities to raise funds, including at North Bend’s downtown festivals.

Before buying the theater, Walker was in the brokerage business. The stress level in running a movie house (Walker also runs the Emerald City Smoothie shop next door) is a tenth of her old job, and Walker loves the flexibility. She likes being part of the special events the theater puts on, and has supervised dozens of local teens who’ve worked the booths over the last seven years.

She’s not sure what will happen to the 1970s-era projector—boat anchor is one, joking, option—but there’s an even older projector in the back of the house that has more museum potential.

“The movie world is changing,” says Walker, who takes a realistic approach to the digital revolution.

“Film is expensive. It’s not environmentally friendly when you’re done with it, and there’s a lot of it.”

Going from film to digital, “it’s like (going from) watching a black and white TV, to HD, full color. You’re nostalgic about it, but it’s not what you want to do every day.”

Instead of swapping a series of reels, a projectionist simply slides a computer hard disk into place and pushes play.

The tech lets North Bend Theater show 3D movies. Walker can also bring in more sports, live concerts, even the New York Metropolitan Opera.

“It will mean a better end product for the customer,” says Walker. But she doubts going digital will really impact the bottom line. If she did, “we’d just pay for it out of revenue.”

This change needs to happen, Walker says. The alternative is to start losing the first-run films that actually bring people in the door.

“If you can’t do that, then you can’t do the fun stuff,” she says.

 

Seth Truscott/Staff Photo

Cindy Walker explores the storage room behind the North Bend Theater stage, where legacies of the movie houses’s past remain—a relic projector, seat parts from the days when this 250-seat theater seated 400 people with little leg room. Walker hosts many live, local events on front of the stage, from film festivals to benefit events.

 

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