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Comet Theater goes digital

Connie Vandermay/FOCUS1 / 2
Connie Vandermay/FOCUS2 / 2

Comet Theater upgraded its 35-millimeter film projector recently, to the tune of $80,000. The Perham theater went digital in advance of a 2013 mandatory movie industry change which will make film projectors obsolete.

In an interview with owners Joe and Delores Wasche, they said they have seen a lot of changes over their 41 years of ownership. The digital upgrade, for example, is the third time the theater has pulled in the newest projecting equipment of the time.

When the Wasches began in 1971, the films were displayed via carbon technology; and in the '90s the system was upgraded to electric bulb technology.

With each upgrade, the necessary work in the production room has lessoned, Joe said.

In the days of carbon, the film had to be switched every 15 minutes, so one wouldn't dare leave the production room, he said.

With the upgrade to electric bulb technology, films and reels didn't need to be switched out mid-movie. However, the set up process was an hour long - with the film having to be spliced and wound around the reels.

As the Wasches wondered whether or not to upgrade this latest time - they don't expect to have the equipment paid off before they are gone - they said local support from businesses and residents helped them realize that it was necessary in order to keep a theater in town.

Though the cost was as high as "two brand new cars," the digital projector definitely has its benefits, which makes life a little easier in the projection booth, Delores said.

For one thing, they won't have to lug around the 150-pound canisters the film came in. And with the time-consuming process of splicing and threading film no longer necessary, set up takes only a few minutes and a few clicks on a computer. Shutting down is easier, too, as the Wasches have to wait only the 12 minutes it takes for the machine to cool down.

As Joe held up a hard drive loaded with this week's movie, "The Avengers," he said he didn't understand the process, but this was how the movies came now.

"It weighs six pounds," he said. A far cry from the canister's weight.

Everything is automatic, so Joe doesn't have to stay within arm's reach of the projector anymore.

The digital system is, "practically trouble free, except I don't know how to run it," Joe said.

Other things have changed in the theater world, like knowing which movies were coming well in advance. Now, the Wasches don't know the next film they'll show until their booker tells them, a week before a new movie is released.

Other regulations are in place, too. The Wasches have to show new releases every night for three weeks, no matter how few people show up for the show on a weekday night, they said.

Some changes the Wasches like, though. The upfront cost of a movie, for example, is no longer there. Instead, the Wasches pay a certain percentage of ticket sales back to the distributer company. Delores gave the example of the movie "Ghostbusters," which cost them an up front sum of $10,000, whether the seats got filled or not.

Some things don't change in the movie business, like safety precautions companies use while delivering movies. The digital disks containing today's movies are sent in one box, while a disk-like key to activate the movie is sent in a separate package. Both are needed to show the film.

In the earlier days, movies were sent in numerous canisters all shipped at different times, so if a movie was lost or stolen during shipping it would be useless in the hands of someone else.

The Wasches purchased the theater from Darrel and Margret Nelson and Kenny Nelson in October 1971. It seats 24 in a balcony and 177 in the auditorium. Last year, all the seats were upgraded to reclining versions with individual cup holders.

Looking back as, "the oldest business owners in town," the Wasches express no regrets about their years of entertaining.

Joe said, "I would do it again."