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Civic Theatre of Allentown is mounting the "Digital Cinema Challenge" to raise $100,000 to purchase new digital projection equipment by year's end.

Civic has raised $40,000 and is seeking an additional $60,000.

Civic is meeting with donors, alerting members and applying for grants to pay for its changeover from film to digital projection equipment. Donations may be made at Civic's web site.

"I was out at the 'Art House Convergence' in January right before the Sundance Festival," says Michael Traupman, Civic managing director. "They basically said, 'Convert or die.'

Civic is a member of the Sundance Institute's Art House Convergence.

"The big talk there was that two of the main distributors, Fox Searchlight and The Weinstein Company, would no longer distribute 35 mm prints at the beginning of 2013."

"The two distributorships [Fox, Weinstein] really subsidize the large, tent-pole films, the ones that subsidize your entire season," Traupman says, citing the Oscar-winning, critically-acclaimed "The King's Speech" and "Midnight in Paris" as "tent-pole" films.

The movie industry plans to switch to digital technology next spring, making celluloid film projectors obsolete.

Among movie theaters converting from 35 mm film to digital projection are The County Theater; Doyles-town, and the Ambler Theater.

Civic, County and Ambler primarily show independent films (those distributed by smaller distributors such as Fox and Weinstein), foreign films and documentaries.

The Roxy, Northampton, plans to convert to digital by year's end.

"The switch will take place before the end of the year, regardless of cost," says Richard C. Wolfe, owner-operator of the Roxy Theatre, Northampton. "The 35 mm projectors will be going into the basement."

Films on 35 mm have been shown almost nonstop for more than 84 years at the Nineteenth Street Theatre, which opened in 1928.

"The biggest expense is the main hall [527 N. 19th St.]," says Traupman. New digital projection was installed this summer at Civic's Theatre514, across the street, at 514 N. 19th St.

At the 70-seat Theater514 last month, "The Queen of Versailles" was shown on a Blu-ray optical disc player. "Ai Wei Wei" and "The Imposter" were downloaded from Emerging Pictures and screened on a mini high-definition digital projector.

The Nineteenth Street Theatre needs a more expensive projector and server to achieve the resolution, frame rate and security standards required for its large cinema screen. A full-length movie for the Nineteenth Street would be compressed to 200 gigabytes, compared to 20 to 50 gigabytes for a Blu-ray.

The digital switch is crucial for Civic, where 33 percent, or $300,000 of its approximate $900,000 budget, and half of its audience, or 30,000, is generated by its film program, according to Traupman.

Art house hits help support the overall cost of operating the Nineteenth Street Theatre and Theatre514 for many activities, including live theater, children's programming and concerts.

"The reason I say, 'convert or die' is it's absolutely essential to the longevity of this organization [Civic]. When you have a historic structure, there must be revenue coming in all the time to pay the bills," Traupman says.

Civic's mission is to enrich people's lives through theater, cinema and theater education. Stage shows are presented on its main stage at 527 N. 19th St. and the black-box Theatre514, where films are also shown.

"We're the last [Allentown] movie theater that's functioning," Traupman says. "The West End of Allentown is pinning their economic future on a vital 19th Street Theatre District. We're central to them.

"One thing I hear from patrons is that they're very aware that they want the whole theater to be renovated. If there's any chance of that happening, this [digital conversion] has to happen first," Traupman says.

Says Traupman, "This does open the door for us to expand our programming. We can do simulcasts and put into place our science-related grant."

Civic received a $7,000 "Science on Screen" grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to show science-themed films preceded by lectures.

There are other digital bonuses, including improved image and sound. "The soundtrack is part of the electronic file. So, you definitely have better sound," Traupman says.

"Despite the purists who love film, they will see a noticeable increase in the quality of presentation because there are way too many moving parts in a projector," Traupman points out.

"It [celluloid] depends on the absolutely perfect contact with the film to have the highest quality image and sound. Prints come damaged scratched, bent. It's never ideal.

"That's all gone with digital. Since the large theater chains are already doing this, we [Civic] are basically going to have the same type of quality."

With the demise of Kodak, most film prints were produced overseas. Each print of a film costs $2,000-plus. Add to that transportation costs for the bulky film canisters.

"The studios are locking down their 35 mm prints. They want things to be shown digitally. It's just easier all around," Traupman says.

The industry standard, Digital Cinema Package (DCP), which refers to the way films are being delivered and the equipment they're played on, replaces bulky 40 to 50-pound film canisters containing 35mm celluloid film prints.

A hard-drive cartridge for digital cinema is the size of a shoebox.

"So much of cinema is produced digitally," Traupman emphasizes. "So, they have to convert it to a 35 mm negative in order to screen it. And almost all movies are edited digitally, even those shot on 35 mm."

"The major chains were able to convert rather quickly. They have very deep pockets," says Traupman.

The National Association of Theatre Owners predicts that 20 percent of North American theaters, representing roughly 10,000 screens, won't able to afford the conversion and will likely go dark [close].

"Audience members come here [Civic's main hall] and they hear the clicking sound of a projector. They say, 'What's that sound?' They forget what it's like."

The Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas, ArtsQuest Center, SteelStacks, Bethlehem, have digital projectors, but an upgrade to digital servers is required. A cost estimate for the upgrade at the Red and Blue theaters at the Banko Cinemas was not available.

The sound of celluloid film whirring through a projector's sprockets will probably be gone at Civic, too.

"I'm hoping that when I go back to the 'Art House Convergence' in January that I will be able to report that we're on board and that many of my colleagues will be saying the same thing," says Traupman.