The Fayetteville Observer
Published: 09:01 PM, Fri May 24, 2013
The Cameo's story, in three actsThe credits for "In the Company of Men" were scrolling past the unit publicist and best boy. A couple sitting up front and I, leaning against the wall with a drained glass of Merlot in hand, were the only ones left in the loge.
Like everyone who has ever worked on a film, I watch credits to the end out of respect for the collaborative role that even the lowest-paid production assistant contributes.
This made me privy to something I had never seen in all of my previous movie-going experiences. The owners came out and started cleaning the aisles themselves. For them, it was just another day: picking up popcorn, forgotten napkins on the floors, soda containers and wine bottles. For them, standard operating procedure.
But, it wasn't so standard.
Because if it were not for Chris Kuenzel; his wife, Nasim, and the Fayetteville community, the Cameo Art House Theatre would have joined the tragic fate of thousands of other community theaters nationwide that weren't able to go digital instead of going dark.
If the story of the Cameo were a feature film, its arc would go like this:
But film distributors make money from filled seats. The more seats, the more revenue. Independent films, despite their high quality, barely make back the costs of production. Without much marketing and publicity, chances of bringing in mass audiences that eat large amounts of popcorn and snacks (where the real money is) are small. So distributors generally don't take chances on small films and small theaters like the Cameo.
That doesn't mean audiences don't want the films or won't pay to see them. I first saw the American premiere of the amazing "Once Were Warriors" in a Utah gymnasium.
So, Chris and Nasim buy what was once the Dixie Theater building on Hay Street. They squish design and construction costs by using their own architectural knowledge and hands. They buy a 1950s film reel Simplex projector, which still runs smoother and faster than most people I know born in the '50s.
Their first film? "Cinema Paradiso," a film about a boy so passionate about films and a small-town theater that they determine the course of his life, his loves and his near destruction.
Most recently, that challenge presented itself in the conversion from film to digital projectors. The Simplex, like the projectors you see in "Cinema Paradiso" and "Sunset Boulevard," or even those caressed so lovingly by the film lover Tony DiNozzo on "N.C.I.S." are flickering klieg lights.
The switch to digital should have hit five years ago. But both multiplexes and indie theaters got a reprieve while major theater owners and the studios, neither of whom fell in the slumdog millionaire category, bickered over who was going to cover the costs.
The savings were tremendous to producers. With digital equipment, one can simply stream or email a digital file to the theater.
Don't get me wrong. I love the big-budget blockbusters just as much as I love indies. I ferociously await "Fast and Furious 6." I saw "Star Trek Into Darkness" on opening day. Digital makes many things possible for the common man.
In fact, the use of digital technology was the key reason director J.J. Abrams allowed me to hold a free premiere of "Morning Glory" for 200 students two years ago. Without digital technology, such an event would have involved a negative pickup (actually picking up the film reels and bringing them to Fayetteville). Never would have happened.
The cost to convert can be $70,000 to $100,000 per screen. The Cameo needs about $200,000 because it has two theaters, the 40-seat loge and the 124-seat theater downstairs.
They garner media support. They plaster the city with fliers soliciting donations. They sell unknown quantities of "Go Digital or Go Dark" T-shirts.
When asked, all say that the films the Kuenzels have brought to the Cameo have been films they couldn't see anywhere else. Terrific stories that brought worlds to their eyes that they would never see at a multiplex.
But don't take my word for it. Go to this website - vimeo.com/66676952 - and listen to some of these residents yourself. Tom Thompson. Edwin Hopkins. Angus Bowers. Lynn Legatski. You and people like them have done all the heavy lifting.
They celebrate with a May 5 screening, free for all donors, of - what else? "Cinema Paradiso" in an extended-film version.
The importance of this achievement is noted by the fact that the news makes it all the way to Emerging Pictures producer Ira Deutchman, a longtime major name in the world of indies whose films regularly garner Sundance Film Festival awards.
"It's wonderful that places like the Cameo exist, and it's wonderful that the community rose up to protect it from technology obsolescence," Deutchman says. "It's so important that these venues survive and thrive all over the country."
Most third acts are quick and dirty. The credits roll less than 10 minutes after the gal is got, the race is run, the war is won.
After the celebration, the owners haul out the old film equipment and instal the new digital equipment in time for the next day's movies.
The Simplex from the 1950s now sits in the lobby. Chris will show you how it worked.
"As a film lover, you love the fact that you've been working with the same technology and format that you started with," Nasim Kuenzel says. "But we've got to change with the times, and fortunately we're one of the few lucky ones."
The lucky ones? We residents of Fayetteville.
Skye Dent is a film and TV writer who lives in Fayetteville. She is a former member of the Observer's Community Advisory Board.