After months of uncertainty, the Milaca Theatre has received the go-ahead from local and state government to solicit funds to pay for a digital conversion slated for Labor Day this year.
“We’ve got our ducks in a row,” owner Brigid Halberg said.
First, she and her husband Josh Halberg went to the state of Minnesota, who left the decision up to the local branches. Mille Lacs County and the City of Milaca gave the final OK last Wednesday for the business to seek donations for the upgrade. The ability for the theater to accept gifts was uncertain as it’s not exactly a non-profit entity. But it’s not exactly a for-profit venture, either. Both Brigid and Josh work full time jobs aside from running the business. The staff is comprised of family and close friends who also believe in keeping the doors open.
“All the money made at the theater goes right back into the theater,” Halberg said.
The couple purchased the cinema just three years ago in an effort to keep the local entertainment provider alive.
“We knew digital was coming, but we didn’t expect it to come so soon,” she said.
The push is coming from the film industry, which will save considerable sums of cash by forcing every picture house to switch from the cumbersome and expensive reel-to-reel projections to the easily mass produced and cheaper digital format.
Currently, the project is expected to cost $70,000, which includes a new digital projector and an upgrade to the surround sound system. But, like most technological advances, that price tag may be a moving target.
“The price might still come down,” Halberg said. “It’s already dropped in half since digital started.”
Still, the cost of the improvements is no small order, especially for a business that is simply breaking even.
“Coming up with funds is really hard,” she said. “And the only thing we could think of is looking to the community for help.”
If the Milaca Theatre is able to raise the $70,000, a clearer picture won’t be the only benefit. Digital copies of movies cost cinemas about $200 versus the $1,000 for a reel-to-reel copy. The 75-pound films are also expensive to ship. As a result, the Halbergs have found themselves making late night trips to locations as far as the Iron Range to pick up a film for that weekend’s showings.
“We’ve drive all over the state just to pick up a film so that we’d have it — so we didn’t have to settle for less,” Halberg said.
The owners will also save time by not having to “build” the reel, which can take anywhere from two to four hours of splicing, taping and re-reeling miles of film.
“People have asked what will we do if we don’t raise enough money,” Halberg said.
She is committed to keeping the ticket and concessions prices at the current levels. Halberg said they would consider taking another loan to pay for the conversion instead. On the other hand, if area businesses and residents make an overwhelming show of support and donations exceed their goals, the couple will make other needed upgrades at the theater. Another $30,000 would pay for revamping the heating system and upgrade the bathrooms as well.
The Halbergs haven’t been in the movie business for very long, but their passion in keeping the only area theater around has inspired others to lend a hand as well.
For the full story, see the Thursday, May 3 print edition of the Times.