The digital age threatens the very future of local theaters as film prints become unavailable

Although the digital age descended on Newberg years ago, there are a few places where analog technology remains. The town’s movie theaters — the Cameo on First Street and the Highway 99W Drive-In on Portland Road — are two remaining examples of a bygone era where film, the actual cellulite material used in theaters for nearly a century, is still displayed with pride.

But that’s all about to change and at a cost that is so daunting that a major player in the automobile world is attempting to help GARY ALLEN - Newberg theaters face
obsolescence - Brian Francis (above) has carried on his grandfather Ted Francis'
tradition of showing films in Newberg for many decades, but that tradition is threatened now as film companies phase out producing prints and move to digital copies to save money and enhance the quality for viewers. Ancient projectors at the Highway 99W Drive-In, two adjacent theaters and the historic Cameo Theater on First Street are unable to show the digital films and will need to be replaced in the near future in order for the theaters to remain open.

In the coming months, Brian Francis — owner of the Cameo, the drive-in and the two indoor theaters adjacent to the drive-in — is facing the very real scenario of no longer being able to get film prints for showings in his theaters. Instead, distributors will be releasing the latest blockbuster flicks only via digital files. The trouble is, none of the Francis theaters are equipped to handle digital; they utilize the same optical film projectors that have dominated the industry for many decades.

Francis said the first sign of film’s demise came in May 1999, when the “Star Wars” prequel “The Phantom Menace” came out. Director George Lucas controlled distribution of the film and shot it in digital, which created the first push for digital films, Francis said. Then came “Avatar” and the 3-D movie craze, which basically brought digital projection to the forefront and large theater companies came on board. Small theater companies that couldn’t afford the new projectors, as well as film enthusiasts, were pushed to the side, he said.

The digital phenomenon started locally several years ago at large theaters like Regal Cinemas in Portland, but the small town theaters have held out — until now, that is.

“Most people that go to the theater lately have been watching on digital, but not at my theater,” Francis said, adding that he believes fewer than 10 percent of the state’s theaters now use film.

The grandson of the man that brought movies to Newberg, Ted Francis, Brian Francis says he is a fan of the 35-millimeter film common in old theaters but understands the draw of digital as well. The system involves a device the size of a portable hard drive that is downloaded to the projector. It provides a much brighter, cleaner image with enhanced sound.

“35 millimeter is pretty much done for, and I understand that,” he said. “I don’t even know how I am going to get prints.”

He explained that whereas before he could obtain prints through a secondary market after larger, first-run theaters were done with them, that market has dried up.

“Sometimes I would get movie overprints, and for years, I would go over to the theater and pick up the print,” he said. “And in the past, there used to be depots that shipped the prints.”

He added that, about two years ago, the last Oregon depot moved to Seattle, then to California. Now, no depots remain in Oregon.

Francis said that a digital system to replace the aging projector at the drive-in will cost upwards of $80,000. That includes remodeling the projection booth because digital projectors need climate-controlled clean rooms in which to operate. Worse yet, because the technology is relatively new, there is little used equipment for sale.

“These machines haven’t been in the theaters long enough to become obsolete or wear out, so there’s not much used equipment,” he said.

Seeing the writing on the wall several years ago, Francis began saving for a digital projector. Still, he has a long way to go, so when he was contacted recently by American Honda Motor Co. about a new effort to outfit drive-ins with digital projectors, he was taken aback.

“I just got contacted by them, I think, ironically, through Facebook,” he said.

Project Drive-In ( asks that people go to the Honda website and vote that their favorite drive-in be one of five to receive a free digital projector. The company is also starting a fund to pay for projectors for other drive-ins in the future.

As far as the future for the Cameo, Francis puts the price tag for converting to digital there at $55,000 to $60,000, figures that may now be beyond his reach.

“My option for the Cameo — it’s almost a little too late,” he said. Still, Francis is determined to move forward, saying “the point now is not to be obsessed with film because there is no way to hold onto it.”

And he said there may be an upside to joining the digital age: “Once I’ve gone over to digital I will able to get more nostalgic type classic films at my drive-in again, like ‘Jaws’ or ‘Back to the Future’ or ‘Goonies.’”

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