Archive for March, 2012

Going, Going, Converting, Gone

Rialto Theatre

The Rialto Theatre faded from the Houston landscape along with the silent era. It was operational for only five years before it closed in 1927.

There is a dramatic change taking place in the movie business, perhaps the most drastic one to occur in the last 85 years. It’s right up there on the screen before your eyes, and it is a real game changer. As with any upheaval, there will be victors as well as losers; this time, the losers will be the small independent theatres across the country. This is the opinion of Michael Hurley, who happens to be one of those independent theatre owners.

The evolution underway in the movie industry is that of projection equipment going digital. This is hardly a new thing; George Lucas spoke of its coming when he was working on the first of his Star Wars prequels in1999, envisioning a day when film could be run without a worry about wear and tear of the product. Instead of projection platters bearing thousands of feet of 35mm film stock, subject to scratches, breaks, and blurry images (from projectionists in need of training, discipline, or glasses), a digital projector could showcase a perfect image. So far, so good… except that the industry is now moving at a rapid pace for this very expensive changeover, and quite soon, there will be no more new movies supplied on film stock. For the large theatrical chains, the cost incurred from the conversion will be taken in stride. This is a different matter for the small mom-and-pop small-town theatres across the country that struggle just to survive. For many of these, it is the end of the road.

The evolution of the motion picture over the last century has been ripe with changes. The first thirty-odd years were a period of innovation, as the language of film was created, leading up to the introduction of sound around 1927. This was followed by such innovations for film and theatre as Technicolor, wide screen, 3-D, stereo and surround sound, THX, stadium seating, drive-ins, multi cinemas and megaplexes, just to mention a few. But of all these advances, the only one that bears any similarity to the current upheaval in the industry was the advent of sound following the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927. The reasons are clearly evident.

The conversion from silent picture to sound required a complete changeover in projection equipment, along with the retrofitting of the theatre with speakers, the whole involving a tremendous expense on the part of the theatre owner. For the larger houses, many of which were part of studio chains, this was not an insurmountable obstacle. For the smaller independents, it was the death knell. The rallying cry from the industry was, “Convert or die.” Many of them did just that, shutting their doors as the silent era drew to a close.

A number of the smaller Houston theatres fell into this soundless wasteland. The Isis Theatre, at 1012 Prairie—one of the first opulent theatres to be built specifically for motion pictures (1912)— closed up by the end of the twenties. So did the Liberty Theatre at 718 Main. It had opened under its original name of the Pearce in 1913, and according to a 1938 Houston Chronicle article, had run the first talking picture in town a few years before The Jazz Singer, using the problematic phonograph system for the vocal track. Close to the Liberty at 608 Main was the Rialto. It had opened in1922; by February of 1927, it too had closed.

What modern theatres now face is the same dilemma—to survive, old projection equipment must be trashed and replaced with new technology, at a price that is prohibitive to the smaller independents. Two recent articles touch on this very issue:

“We’re About to Lose 1,000 Small Theaters That Can’t Convert to Digital. Does It Matter?” by Michael Hurley. He owns the Colonial Theatre in Belfast, Maine as well as the Temple Theatre in Houlton, Maine, and maintains a website for movie theater owners (www.bigscreenbiz.com). The second article appeared just before the Academy awards presentation. “Kodak—and film—saying goodbye to the Oscars” by Ryan Nakashima notes the simultaneous demise of film projection with the financial difficulties of Kodak and its departure from the Kodak Theatre, home to the Oscars for the last decade.

As sad as this is for the struggling theatres to compete, it is nothing new. Motion pictures have always been an art form based on  technology  that has evolved with the times. The exhibition end represents the tail end of that development. From the practical viewpoint, the convert or die mentality is the logical answer for the studios that are changing over their technology, and can be expected to continue producing film stock product for only so long. This does not make it any easier for the small theatre owners who do not have deep pockets, and who could benefit from a subsidized transition.

From the historical viewpoint, it is a true end of an era. While the composition of the film stock has changed over the years, from the older volatile nitrate stock of earlier days to safety stock, and the early tinted and hand-colored stock to the variety of color stocks that came later, the physical file has always been there, to be threaded into the projector and run, one sprocket at a time. Those days are now drawing to a close. It will have a profound effect on the industry, as well as the many small-town theatres across the country.

Some will survive. Others will not. For those who mourn the passing scene of the cinema, this will be another casualty—and as film history has proven, this will probably not be the last time. As the movies continue to evolve as an art form and as a technological form, there will also be the Convert or Die Decree.


Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a writer and artist who lives in Houston with his wife and two children. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.