Just about all of the mainstream and chain movie theaters in town have already switched over to digital projection—something I wrote about back in May—but Portland's smaller and independent theaters are still juggling awkward mixes of 35mm, digital projection, Blu-ray and DVD, and shadow puppets as they try to figure out how, exactly, to adjust to the changing times. One of Portland's most popular second-run theaters, though, is making the switch to digital in all of its auditoriums—and soon.

"All four theaters are going digital," says Prescott Allen, owner of the Laurelhurst Theater. "They should be done before Christmas, and we’re pretty excited about it."

When I last spoke to Allen about the possibility of the Laurelhurst going digital, back in May, he didn't know if it'd be "five years, 10 years, [or] 15 years" before they converted, though he saw the writing on the wall. "Yes," Allen said when I emailed him yesterday about the switchover. "It has happened sooner than we thought it would."

"There were a number of reasons that we decided to go digital now rather than wait," Allen adds. "It’s been on the horizon for a number of years and it became apparent over the summer that the studios were making a big push to change film distribution from 35mm to digital. For one, film distribution centers were closing and consolidating in a reaction to studio and filmmakers' preferences for digital over 35mm for cost savings."

"Secondly," Allen continues, "we talked with studios, booking agents, and other theater owners, and everyone is in agreement that digital is here to stay [and] that the changeover was happening really quickly.

"Thirdly, we owe it to our customers to keep up with technology and to be able to show films that they want to see. The Laurelhurst Theater has been here since 1923 and we’re going to continue its success as long as possible.

"By going digital we are able to ensure that they will not have to miss out on titles because we don't have the technology to show it. Right now, any new film that we want is on digital, and that is not necessarily the case for 35mm."

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The Laurelhurst will retain the ability to play 35mm, though actually doing so will be the exception rather than the rule. That's mostly because it's harder and harder for a theater like the Laurelhurst—or any theater—to get 35mm prints. There simply aren't that many physical prints being struck for new films, and studios are increasingly reluctant to lend out their prints of older films. Allen sees 35mm at the Laurelhurst being used primarily "for the repertory titles that we play. That’s not to say that all repertory titles will be in 35mm. Some will certainly be digital. [But] by keeping one 35mm [projector], we are going to be able to provide the most choices of films to show."

Speaking of choices, the digital projectors will also give the Laurelhurst the ability to play 3D films, though they haven't yet decided if they will. Allen says they'll decide shortly about 3D, noting that if they do, "we need to make sure we're selective in the 3D films we offer."

Allen also says that the "conversion will also include a complete sound system upgrade. New processors, surrounds, left, right, centers, subs, you name it. It’s pretty cool getting pallets of speakers delivered." And despite the spendy conversion, the Laurelhurst's prices—currently $4 a ticket—won't go up. "Going digital is not going to be an excuse for us to raise prices," Allen says. "We survive because we offer an affordable movie venue in a fun environment without many of the distractions of a first-run [theater]. Plus there’s good food, good local beer, and friendly people. With our digital and sound upgrade we will also offer comparable image and sound quality as a first-run theater, except three people can be admitted here for the cost of a first-run ticket somewhere else. With any luck, the only change our customers will notice is that the image on screen is brighter and that the new sound system helps capture their senses and takes them to the theater experience they want to be in."

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