"In just the last four years, there's just been a rapid transition going on," Corcoran said.
The change favors the studios, whose cost to print and ship a film is about $1,500, Corcoran said. By contrast, a digital version of a movie is captured on a hard drive about the size of a book, built and shipped for around $100.
Meanwhile, theaters pay an average of $70,000 per screen to acquire the digital projection and sound equipment needed to use those hard drives. The Theater Owners association negotiated with studios to help 70 percent of theaters with the expensive adaptation, and secured assurances the basic digital-projector technology would remain the same to preserve a theater's investment.
Small, independent movie houses, though, must buy new equipment on their own. Barnhart will convert the Paris Theater and its two screens to digital by late January. The cost will be around $125,000. "It's actually going to cost more than it cost me to buy this place," Barnhart said, standing inside the projection booth, up a flight of stairs from the lobby, carpeted and lit by the theater's concession stand.
Barnhart, a 35-year-old Terre Hautean, bought the Paris Theater in 2011 after AMC — the nation's second-largest cinema chain — closed it. Barnhart got his first cinema job nearly 20 years earlier at theaters near Honey Creek Mall. "I loved it immediately," he said, and always wanted to own his own theater. That ambition came true when he became co-owner of the Meadows Theater, a role he still holds.
Converting any theater to digital is often one of the largest investments made by an owner.
"Yeah, pretty much," Corcoran said, "and at this point, it's pretty much necessary to stay in the business." As of Nov. 1, about 91 percent had switched. Of the nation's 40,455 movie screens, 36,455 have been converted, and the rate has reached 300 per month. Among theaters, 5,700 are digital, with about 1,200 locations still using film. Some holdouts are the eclectic "art houses," endeared to the 35mm process. Some are waiting. A few hundred will sell or close, Corcoran said.