CRYSTAL TOWNSHIP — The Crystal Box Office Theatre, with its lower-than-average prices, tasty concessions and small-town charm, has been a fixture of this lakeside community since it was first erected more than 65 years ago.
But as time has passed, the average movie theater experience has changed as well.
Prices are higher, screens are bigger, the sound is more impressive and the picture is as crisp and detailed as ever.
But with those upgrades comes a cost, and small, traditional one-screen theaters, such as the Crystal theater, are now having a difficult time keeping up with the technology.
Since 2000, Roger Gooding has operated the theater, which opened in 1947, and he’s committed to keeping that small-town charm intact.
The price of a movie ticket at the theater is $4. That’s in comparison to the nationwide average of more than $8 per ticket, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.
Visitors to the theater will tell you the popcorn is the best they’ve ever had, and it’s hard for anyone to turn down the Michigan-made soft drinks, made with real sugar, that are offered at the concession stand.
Open just three nights a week, with one showing per night in a 240-seat theater, it’s an experience that you likely won’t find anywhere else.
Gooding says he’s not in the business to turn a large profit, his overhead costs are low enough to keep his prices well below average, but soon, he may not have any movies to show in order to simply keep the theater afloat.
According to Gooding, movie studios are steadily switching from traditional 35-millimeter film prints to digital, for cost reasons.
Gooding said studios can ship a physical hard drive containing a digital version of a movie to his theater for about $100. Creating a physical 35-millimeter print can cost the studios anywhere from $2,500 and $3,500 to produce and ship, depending on the length of the movie.
“It’s a huge financial incentive for them, it saves them money,” he said.
But in order for Gooding to make the technological leap to keep up with the change in format, he will need to purchase a digital projector capable of playing the movies.
Gooding estimates the cost of a new projector and accessories to be about $50,000, an amount too large for him to manage on his own in the near-future.
“We will need donations, we will need the community support,” he said. “I don’t think we can do it on our own.”
Gooding said raising ticket and concession prices won’t be effective in the short term for acquiring a new projector.
“If we raise the ticket price a dollar, we’re still only getting half of that, the other half goes back to the studios” he said. “It would work, but it would take 10 years to pay for it.”
Unfortunately, Gooding said time is something he doesn’t have.
Each year he sells between 10,000 to 12,000 tickets. But if movie studios begin to stop production of 35-millimeter film altogether, the theater will have a difficult time showing any newly released movies.
“I’ve already got notification from one company that they are largely done with 35-millimeter film,” he said. “I don’t expect it to be long before the rest of them go that way.”
Twice this year, Gooding has already had to show movies that have already played previously in his theater.
Last month, Gooding had to play the movie “Frozen,” a movie he had already run when it was released previously in November. This month, Gooding had to play the movie “The Nut Job” for two consecutive weekends. Both weekends, it was because no newly released movie was available on 35-millimeter film.
“There were no other prints I could get,” he said. “I call the companies and ask for new movies, but other theaters are keeping the prints. It’s like renting a movie from a rental store. If the movie isn’t there, you’re out of luck.”
Gooding said every studio tells him the same thing when he asks for new movies.
“They always respond, ‘If you’re digital, there’s no problem,’” he said.
Gooding said it will only be a matter of time before he is is only able to show movies that have been out of theaters for several months, some already on DVD. If that happens, Gooding believes the theater will begin to suffer.
“People don’t come here to see movies they could have seen months ago,” he said. “The worst case scenario, we close. I’m looking at options, but I don’t like to think about that. I don’t think it will come to that, but you never know.”
For Susie Berry, who spends time working concessions and helping out at the theater with her husband, Mike, losing the theater would be difficult to handle.
“We’d be devastated,” she said. “I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl. It’s always been here.”
Berry said she saw her very first movie at the Crystal theater when she was young, “Pinocchio,” and her daughter also saw her first movie at the very same theater.
“Kids come here on their first dates, they grow up here,” she said. “Because it’s a smaller, friendly theater than in bigger cities, it’s a completely different experience. The theater is a big part of our community.”
Gooding has begun fundraising efforts to raise money for a new projector.
“We’re trying to do some fundraising and we’ve had some people make some donations,” he said. “We’re selling T-shirts and blankets as well.”
Gooding said while he doesn’t want to ask for assistance, he doesn’t believe he has many other options.
“If this would be six, seven years ago, I’d have no problem taking out a loan for this,” he said. “But now, we’re not at the point where the bank can just hand over a loan. It’s not that easy.”
Gooding is hoping to obtain a projector before the busier summer season when Crystal Lake is flooded with “snowbirds” who return home to their cottages.
“My goal is to have a new projector by summer, but we’ll see,” he said.
The Crystal Box Office Theatre is open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with one showing at 8 p.m. each evening.
Gooding said when patrons visit, they can purchase the shirts and blankets or make a donation if they wish at the concession stands.
“Every little bit helps,” he said.
Donations can also be mailed to Crystal Box Office Theatre, Box 161 Crystal, MI, 48818.