The St. James Princess Theater has been around for about 100 years and recently survived arguably its biggest hurdle yet.

The theater was forced to replace its old projector system because of Hollywood’s move away from 35-millimeter film toward digital technology.

That trend left some small-town theaters in the dark. But not the Princess Theater.

Owned by the city of St. James, community members and local foundations helped the theater purchase $65,000 worth of digital equipment in 2012. Theater manager Linda Buller said she expected the process to take a year. It took about five months.

“We didn’t think we’d get it that fast,” she said. “It was just amazing.”

While more than 90 percent of theaters in the U.S. have made the switch to digital, some have been forced to close because of the high costs of the new technology. The conversion can cost around $70,000 per screen, and the trend comes as movie theater ticket sales have stagnated nationally.

Theaters sold 1.5 billion tickets in 2004, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, but sold just 1.34 billion in 2013. The number of theaters has decreased, too. There were 7,798 theaters in the U.S. in 1996, according to the MPAA, and 5,683 in 2012.

Despite bleak national numbers, the Princess Theater appears to be holding up financially. The theater shows one movie a night Friday through Monday and charges $4 regularly — $3 on bargain nights — and between $2 and $5 for refreshments.

Buller said business has increased at the theater, which can hold about 200 patrons.

About 13 miles northeast, business has increased at the Madelia Theater as well.

That theater is also an older, single-screen theater that shows one movie each weekend. There, too, patrons can see a movie and purchase refreshments for about $10.

“We want families to come and have a night out without spending hundreds of dollars,” Madelia manager Karla Grev said.

The Madelia Theater made the switch to digital in February 2012. The theater’s owner, Christensen Communications Company, had been saving money for the switch, which cost about $70,000.

The theater’s projection room still bears memory of its 35-millimeter past. Rolls of film sit on a counter behind the new digital projector, and there are glass windows on both sides of the main projector hole.

When the theater used dual film projectors more than 20 years ago, a projectionist would have to quickly switch from one to the other to keep the movie going. Now the operator puts a hard drive into the digital player and clicks “play” on a computer to start a movie.

‘Almost as good as 3-D’

Don Larsson, an English professor at Minnesota State University who teaches film classes, said digital projection systems became inevitable as directors began incorporating more digital elements into movies.

The technology has gradually become more pervasive in theaters in the past decade. A 2011 IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service report cited the 2009 James Cameron movie “Avatar” for speeding up the digital transition.

AMC Theaters, the second-largest theater owner in the U.S., announced plans in March 2009 to install digital projection systems on all of its screens, and Regal Entertainment Group, the largest theater owner in the U.S., announced a similar plan two months later.

Cinemark Theaters, the third-largest U.S. theater owner and owner of the River Hills Theater, finished installing digital projectors at all its theaters in December 2011. Carmike Cinemas, which owns the Stadium Road theater and the New Ulm theater, has installed digital systems on 2,552 of its 2,660 theaters. 

Proponents of the technology, including filmmaker George Lucas, note the clarity, detail and consistency of digital movies. The technology allows filmmakers to produce movies in 3-D and allows theaters to show live events, such as concerts.

Larsson noted that digital movies don’t require the handling or the technical expertise of 35-millimeter films.

Opponents recognize the inevitability of the conversion but say they instead prefer the warmth and nostalgia of film.

Locally, both the St. James and Madelia theaters appear to be embracing their new digital systems.

Buller said the picture on the new system is wonderful. Grev shared that sentiment, noting the brighter colors of digital movies.

“It’s almost as good as 3-D,” she said.

‘People love coming here’

Attendance has increased at the Madelia Theater since 2010-11, when it attracted 10,629 patrons. This year, Grev said, she expects the theater to draw 11,500.

Grev said she thinks the theater has stayed competitive because of its low prices. She noted that Madelia is a regional hub of sorts because it’s located between New Ulm and Mankato and that it draws people looking for a small town flavor.

“People love coming here because we make everyone feel important, and they feel like they are at home,” Grev said. “We want to make them feel like they’re the most important when they come here.”

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