Going digital expensive but may be key to survival

Video killed the radio star - and digital movies may be the death of the indie suburban cinema.

In the past year, two locally owned theatres, Upper Hutt's Ascot and Island Bay's Empire, closed their doors.

The new owner of the Empire aimed to keep the building as a movie theatre and the three-screen Ascot was last year bought by a Queensland cinema manager, Bob Bailey.

But both cinemas have projectors playing the old 35mm film, a soon-to-be-extinct media.

With it costing about $100,000 to convert one screen, some independent cinemas could be forced to close if they do not have that sort of cash on hand, Light House Cinema owner Simon Werry says.

"We certainly thought we'd be doing it next year . . . but once the US and other key territories got there, you started to see [film] prints dry up.

"It has been really tough spell for a lot of cinemas, cash flow-wise, absorbing that."

But while converting might be the final straw, industry experts such as Mr Werry and Paramount's Steven Ferguson say there are other financial pressures on cinema operators.

Flat audience numbers, combined with insurance rises and earthquake-strengthening costs, have been eating into cinema's profitability - as well as the opening of new theatres, including the Roxy and Light House's Cuba complex, Mr Ferguson says.

While the future of the Empire and Ascot are uncertain, neither cinephile thinks the capital will see further theatres close for good.

The Light House's three locations, Courtenay Place's Paramount, Brooklyn's Penthouse and Miramar's Roxy, are all fully digital.

Masterton's Regent 3 has also converted this year. Owner Brent Goodwin says that, if independent theatres survive the conversion, audiences - especially provincial ones - will be able to reap the benefits. "For us small cinemas, it gives us the same access as Auckland's Queen St. "

The Dominion Post