Bob Ezra was extremely reluctant to launch a public fundraising effort this year to prevent the iconic Crystal Theatre in Carbondale from “going dark” in a slow but steady decline.
His wife, Kathy, convinced him to swallow a little pride and appeal for help purchasing the equipment necessary to convert from 35 mm to digital projection. The result has been phenomenal.
The Ezras are experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment. Jimmy Stewart discovered in that classic Christmas film how much his community loves him and is willing to help save his flagging financial institution.
The Ezras are finding out how people from Carbondale and the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley appreciate their efforts to keep the small, intimate, single-screen theater alive. It’s rekindling the feeling they experienced when they rented part of a ramshackle building on Main Street in 1984 and turned it into a modern theater — with the help of a volunteer army of tradespeople and support from all quarters of Carbondale.
“That whole sentiment has resurfaced with this digital campaign,” Kathy said. “It’s really inspiring.”
“People wanted to help. It’s really cool,” Bob said. “Sometimes, somebody you know will give you a check, and it will take your breath away.”
As of Thursday, they raised about $42,000 of the estimated $70,000 needed to buy the digital equipment. They hope to reach their goal by the end of May.
They have known for some time that the conversion was going to be necessary, but they haven’t been able to save the capital necessary for the new equipment. Until recently, the cost of conversion was $100,000. It’s difficult enough making ends meet in the 125-room theater that still charges only $7.50. The Ezras are known and appreciated for screening an interesting mix of commercial and art movies. More often than not, you can count on the Crystal Theatre to bring in a flick that doesn’t quite fit in at Anywhere USA strip malls.
They are convinced they have no choice but to “go digital or go dark.” They already are experiencing longer waits than ever to acquire the fewer 35 mm prints available. Some movies they and their customers are interested in, such as the “Chasing Ice” documentary about disappearing glaciers, are available only in digital formats. They waited long after the initial release to get one of only eight prints of “Life of Pi” in the western U.S. Customers still flocked to their theatre to see it.
Nevertheless, the Ezras know 35mm will be a thing of the past, possibly as soon as 2014.
They aren’t the only small, independent theater facing the challenge. An entire industry has been born where financing is provided to theater owners to help them acquire the equipment, but the Ezras said the terms aren’t to their liking. They would lose too much of the independence that makes the Crystal Theatre so great.
They looked into other options, including ad hoc groups that formed to help small theaters like theirs, but none appeared to be a viable option.
“We explored every yellow brick road that we could,” Kathy said. “They had good intentions, but there was no wizard at the end of the road.”
Friends encouraged them to launch a fundraising campaign. They were convinced that Carbondale would come to the aid of one of its beloved institutions.
“It was hard for me to do that because, basically, it’s panhandling,” Bob said. The fact that people have been eager to help has eased his reservations.
Still, they are billing their fundraiser as a “first and last” event of its type. They will show special screenings of “Across the Universe” on the evenings of May 29, 30 and 31 as one of the few events tied to the fundraiser. Admission will be $12.
For information on the fundraising campaign and how to help, go to www.crystaltheatrecarbondale.com.
Upstairs in the projection room, the 35mm film for the current feature, “The Company You Keep,” is resting on a platter. The film is the size of a small vehicle tire. The film arrives on several reels. Bob splices them together in a task he says is no longer difficult for him after nearly 28 years of practice, but it still is time-consuming. During screenings, the film is fed through various pieces of machinery to, ultimately, the projector.
Bob has learned to be a troubleshooter with the system since showing their first film, “The Breakfast Club,” on July 19, 1985. He said they have only been unable to show “five or six” movies in all that time because of mechanical issues. Other flicks have been delayed, but he managed to figure out the problem and let the show go on.
When they convert to digital, Bob’s skills with 35 mm film will become a lost art.
“I’m actually looking forward to it,” he said. It will offer advantages, such as showing homemade films for fundraisers and special events. Sound quality will be better, and there will be a clear, bright picture.
“I will always have a nostalgia for film,” Kathy said. “But bottom line, it’s all about the movies — movies are always magical regardless of how it’s projected.”