In my town, if you're a cinephile and a lover of all things local, The Bijou Art Cinema is a home away from home. This former Spanish Mission style church turned mortuary turned art-house cinema is nestled in the University District in Eugene, OR, and has a 30 year history of supporting independent, foreign, and local film. In mid-2010, a handful of longtime employees pitched in each of their life savings to save The Bijou from bankruptcy, and now are calling on the community to help them make the jump to digital. And if crowdfunding wasn't already an endeavor and a half, a second location is being opened downtown, which will help cater to local independent filmmakers.
Independent cinemas are often like walking into a time machine, and The Bijou is no different. The stained glass, the rich smell of wood, and even the quiet patio that separates the two auditoriums bring to mind an older, much more tranquil time. However, with the advancement of technology, including the switch to digital projection, this independent theater is in the throes of change, and has started their own Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise funds to move themselves into the digital age.
Owner Edward Schiessl sat down with us to discuss their move to digital, their new downtown location, and the role The Bijou plays in independent film culture. Check out his interview after the video.
NFS: What can you tell us about the switch from 35mm projection to digital?
ES: Well, theatrical releases have always been played on 35mm film -- since the inception of film until the early 2000s. Almost nothing has changed -- if you look at projectors from the 1910s, they really operate on almost the exact same mechanics as modern-day 35mm projectors. Just in recent years, the major distributors decided to make a push to transition to digital, which is sort of them externalizing their costs, because traditionally they would print, like, 3,000 copies of a popular 35mm film. It goes on 3,000 screens and then they trash prints -- just throw them away, because after that initial break, it's never going to be on more than a few screens again. So, it's this huge waste, considering that every 35mm film print is about 2 miles of film and takes all these toxic chemicals and precious metals. It can cost them anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars per print.
So, they were looking for a way to cheapen their distribution circuit, and the way that they decided to do that was to create a set of standards for digital cinema projection. Basically, the largest distributors, like Fox, Sony, Universal, Warner Brothers, and Paramount, got together with the largest exhibitors, like Regal, Cinemark, and AMC, and decided on this set of standards. They set up deals called "virtual print fees" where those larger companies could sign on and get a $1,000 kickback every time they play a digital movie. However, those don't work for smaller exhibitors like us. We can't sign onto those, and if we did, we'd be boxed into playing certain films from certain distributors. So, essentially small theaters and small distributors are out of the loop and this became a huge cost to both of us, while the biggest players were essentially getting it paid for.
NFS: What do you think about digital projection versus 35mm projection? In what ways is it better? Worse?
ES: I mean, on the one hand I see the sustainability issue there. They're doing the right thing. Unfortunately, the technology isn't quite there yet. They're still working out the bugs on it. So, it was kind of a ham-handed rush into this technology that wasn't quite there yet and wasn't quite cheap enough for everybody to switch over to. It's not quite as reliable. I mean, essentially you're buying a computer for tens of thousands of dollars that's like, who knows if this is going to work 5 years from now, whereas 35mm projectors are workhorses and they last forever. A lot of the projectors that are installed in theaters right now are the same ones that have been there since the 60s and 70s.
Right now a little more than 75% of the screens in North America have been converted for digital, and the rest of the theaters like us are struggling to find a way to pay for this.
NFS: So, what made you decide to switch?
ES: Well, this whole thing started around '05, '06 -- the tide really started to shift. It went from a few digital theaters in the United States to hundreds and then thousands switching over really quickly. Back then, it was $80,000 to $100,000 per screen to make that change, and now we've waited long enough to where there are options for smaller screens like we have -- more affordable equipment that has more bugs worked out. So, now we're able to make that change for half that price, which is something we can finance for the most part.
We're converting 3 of the screens we're going to have once we open the Metro, since not all content needs to be played on DCI compliant projectors. We were able to finance two of those ourselves, and we're running our Kickstarter right now to finance the third one.
NFS: Well, that kind of leads into my next question. Why did you decide to go the crowdfunding route?
ES: We did try to finance it ourselves first, but we've seen a lot of small theaters have great success with it. I've seen a lot of successful Kickstarters in small communities, and we've obviously been a part of this community for a long time, and fill an important niche here. So, we figured we had a pretty good chance of having a successful campaign just based on the support that we see in this community for the kind of stuff that we offer.
A lot of the theaters that are successful are non-profit, so it's kind of different for us being a for-profit asking for help. Seems like people are much more willing to donate, especially when it's tax-deductible. So, I was a little conflicted about that, but we're carrying as much of that cost as we can, and this is just that last little bit. This actually accounts for 5% of the total budget that we've spent upgrading this place and installing the new theater downtown.
NFS: Can you tell us about the rewards you're offering?
ES: In order to not feel like we're just -- begging for money, what we did with our Kickstarter rewards was make sure that they're of the dollar value that people are pledging -- in some cases more. If you're going to come to a movie at The Bijou in the next couple years, throw us 10 bucks right now, here's your ticket. For us, it's like a no-interest loan. We're giving these goods out and we're doing a drive to get all that income at once.
This is also the first time that we're offering memberships, which is a big part of our advertising for our Kickstarter. We'll have various tiers of memberships eventually, but during the Kickstarter we're just offering the top 2, both of which include unlimited movies for an entire year and you get popcorn and soda every time you come in. You get to go to special events, and one of those that we're including is the soft opening for The Bijou Metro.
NFS: I can't even tell you how excited I am about The Bijou Metro. Can you tell us a little bit about your decision to open it?
ES: Long before we actually took over The Bijou, Michael Lamont, the original owner, had been really interested in expanding, because being the only outlet for art-house content in Eugene -- there's an awful lot of it -- we're talking hundreds and hundreds of films every year that just never play, because we don't have room.
So, what we're doing downtown is adding several much smaller auditoriums. We just needed the ability to diversify -- play things longer, let them find their audience -- essentially provide something for everyone. We'll have the foreign films and the documentaries and the fun late nights and the bigger popular films. You know, when you go to the multiplex you have 16 choices. There really is something from every genre there most of the time, and we'd like to be able to do that for art-house content.
So, Michael was very keen on that, but was never able to make it happen. Pretty much immediately after we took over the business and got it stabilized, the city approached us. They'd been wanting to put a multiplex downtown, and there's been some blowback when they tried to put a corporate multiplex down there. So, they asked us if we were interested, and we were like, "Yeah, we're broke, but let's see what we can come up with."
The city helped us secure some financing, the landlord we're working with has been really helping us adapt the space for what we need. They carried a lot of that cost for us. Between that and some additional financing -- an inheritance from a loyal customer who passed away, we've been able to make this whole thing a reality.
NFS: Seeing how your programming is geared toward independent films, what role do you see The Bijou playing in independent cinema in general?
ES: Hmmm -- less of a role than we'd like. Unfortunately, the way availability of movies has gotten in recent years with iTunes, Netflix, and crowdsourcing options, a lot of independent filmmakers are finding avenues to get out there without any kind of theatrical run. But, I still feel that enjoying a movie with an audience is a really different experience -- not only because of the captive aspect of it, but just experiencing that, sort of, mob mentality -- you think things are funnier when you watch them with an audience -- or scarier. I think that's a really important thing that needs to be sustained.
Actually, downtown we're doing an ongoing series where we highlight local independent filmmakers. We'll do a night, whether it's a series of shorts or a feature, and have the filmmakers there. We may work with DIVA -- we partner with the [University of Oregon] Cinema Studies department on a lot of things, so those are options to promote those and get cool local content.
As a filmmaker myself, I like to be able to provide that venue, because there's nothing like seeing your own work up on the big screen with an audience in there. Right now, the way our model is, we have to rent the space to those filmmakers, which -- laying out $400 to rent a movie theater space is just not viable, especially after probably spending your life savings making the movie.
So, once we have the downtown space, it'll be a lot easier for us to program and fit those in both. That's one way that we like to work with the local local indies. And just as far as general independent film, I hope that theatrical does continue to play a part in their distribution strategy, because I think that's really important and really different from the way we experience movies on our computers at home. But that -- that availability is important though. I watch a lot of movies on my computer at home, but I still appreciate the importance of experiencing that with a group in a dark theater.
I remember the first time I went to The Bijou, which also happened to be the first time I saw a movie alone. It was a little before the famous theater mascot -- a 22 pound, 22-year-old tabby cat named Boo -- went to cat heaven. She was just walking around in the lobby as I bought my ticket for Wendy and Lucy. I remember sitting in the small auditorium, eating popcorn, and slowly falling in love with a film that I would have never known about if it weren't for my local art-house theater.
Thanks Edward for letting us pick your brain. Check out their Kickstarter campaign, and if you're ever in the area, stop in and catch a flick -- or just grab some popcorn with a dash of brewer's yeast on it. (So Eugene.)
What do you think? With the transition to digital, how have your local indie theaters fared?