The projection room on the upper floor of Vogelweh’s Galaxy Theater in Kaiserslautern, Germany, is a movie geek’s paradise.

Star-studded movie posters cover most available wall space. Film reels lie haphazardly around the room. The centerpiece: Two giant projectors facing square holes, where the magic of 35 millimeter film meets the big screen.

The lights in this 1953 base theater and dozens more worldwide might soon be dimmed as the Army and Air Force Exchange Service ushers in the digital era, in which compact computer hard drives that don’t need a projectionist’s trained hand are replacing spools of celluloid film.

With the shift in Hollywood from 35mm film to digital picture and sound, movie theaters worldwide, including those on U.S. military installations, are being forced to upgrade their projection systems to keep up with the new technology.

AAFES, which operates about 120 Reel Time theaters, has plans to eliminate half of its base cinemas.

AAFES officials said the exchange will spend about $7.4 million to convert 60 theaters to digital-format equipment — 26 in the States and 34 overseas. About 30 exchange theaters that won’t receive the upgrade have already closed, said AAFES spokesman Judd Anstey. The exchange “is engaged in a comprehensive analysis of attendance for all of its theaters to determine where digital conversion makes sense.”

For theaters with poor ticket sales or where customers have other options, whether downtown or on a neighboring military base, AAFES isn’t likely to fund the upgrade, a $120,000 investment that includes a new digital projector and sound system, as well as a movie screen that can better display 3-D images, according to AAFES officials.

“If there’s not an audience for it; if people aren’t using it, that is what is influencing the decision process,” Anstey said. “Looking at some of the analysis done, I’ve seen places where it could take 10 years to recoup that money.”

AAFES’ bottom line is small consolation to military moviegoers lamenting the loss of their base theater, where ticket prices are generally a few bucks cheaper than the industry standard and family movies are often a weekend staple.

“I feel this is a mistake to take this away, especially when so many of your troops are deployed,” an anonymous post to the Commander’s Action Line at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., said in December. The base theater, which screened its last picture show Jan. 19, “is the best and most economical way to have family time …”

Col. Mark Weatherington, the 28th Bomb Wing commander at Ellsworth, responded that “this was not a base decision” but a business decision by AAFES. Base officials arranged with the cinema in Rapid City to give a military discount of $2.50 when presenting one’s ID, he said.

Anstey said the theater business has become more competitive, with multiplex and IMAX theaters in many locations near military installations offering something for the entire family, versus most base theaters’ traditional single screen. In the continental U.S., AAFES is authorized to offer only second-run movies, which limits both ticket pricing and attendance, with films showing on base about six weeks, on average, after commercial release.

AAFES’ mission is twofold: “One is to provide products and services, but just as important, it’s to make a profit so we can create a dividend,” said Michael Sitrin, the manager of the Kaiserslautern Military Community Center food court and Gateway Cineplex.

Roughly two-thirds of the Exchange’s earnings are paid to Army Installation Management Command and Air Force Services programs, according to the Exchange’s website. In 2011, the Exchange returned $203 million to the military services, according to the website.

The Navy has converted all but one of the 42 indoor theaters it manages through Morale, Welfare and Recreation to digital projection with 3-D capability, said Patrick Foughty, a spokesman for Navy Installations Command.

“Currently only one theater, at MCAS Iwakuni, is not digital, but they are exploring converting options,” Foughty said in an email.

Overseas, AAFES has converted to digital capability at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany; Camp Zama, Japan; and Camp Arifjan, Kuwait; according to AAFES officials. In Europe, 14 theaters are scheduled for the upgrades this spring.

But the fate of a few other base theaters in Europe is still being scripted, as AAFES officials have yet to make a final decision on Vogelweh, RAF Lakenheath, RAF Alconbury and Brunssum, among others, officials said.

“We are looking at the numbers, and the numbers aren’t good,” said one AAFES official about Vogelweh’s 685-seat Galaxy Theater, noting that most customers flock a few miles down the road to Ramstein Air Base, where AAFES’ only four-screen theater has 500 stadium-style seats and surround sound.

The theaters at Mannheim and Bitburg, both U.S. military communities that are slated to close, screened their final movies more than six months ago. Also targeted for closing are the base cinemas at Schweinfurt, Heidelberg and Bamberg, said Lt. Col. Al Hing, AAFES-Europe/Southwest Asia spokesman. U.S. Army Europe has announced those installations will eventually be returned to the host nation as part of Army transformation on the continent.

One reason movie studios are switching to digital is because it’s a much cheaper format: It costs about $1,500 to produce and ship one 35mm film print to theaters, on multiple reels stored in metal canisters weighing more than 20 pounds apiece. A digital copy costs a studio about $150.

AAFES theaters could also save on labor. A certified projectionist is no longer required to operate the film projector.

“You can literally run a multiscreen theater with one associate now,” Sitrin, the Gateway Cineplex manager, said. “You just go around, punch buttons, it’s all done. We envision it will be a cost savings to us as well as across the industry.”

The digital drive, a little bigger than a hardback novel, is loaded onto a computer server and projected through a high-powered digital projector onto the screen. The operator must program several commands and download a special code, which arrives separately by email, in order to “unlock” and show the movie, said Michelle Hetcher, the Skyline Theater manager at Spangdahlem Air Base.

Whereas film prints are delivered to bases in Germany by AAFES bakery trucks, after being picked up from a central warehouse, the digital versions arrive via air mail directly from the States, Hetcher said. It adds a new wrinkle, however — whether the movie will arrive in time for its planned show dates, she said.

But much less can go wrong with digital movies. “My worst nightmare used to be that the film itself would melt,” said Michael Schorn, a certified projectionist for four years who now operates the digital machines at the Skyline.

Nonetheless, although digital gives a superior audio and visual presentation, Schorn, like other projectionists at military bases, is nostalgic for 35mm film.

After graduating from Ramstein High School, certified projectionist Nate Spaulding, 20, started out working theater concessions, his interest piqued by the spinning reels upstairs.

He learned the trade, studying the 700-page manual and passing the test.

“I love the job,” he said. “I love the showmanship. I love giving people a great show.

“I’m going to be in tears when they cart these off.”

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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