MANCHESTER - A campaign to raise $175,000 got underway this week to keep the lights on and the doors open at the Village Picture Shows, the area's only movie theater between Bennington and Rutland.

The money is needed to finance an equipment conversion to allow the theater to show movies produced digitally, compared to those produced through traditional film-based movie stock. New projectors, new screens and a new sound system will be needed going forward, as filmmakers and distributors convert to the new format. By the end of this year, no more movies will be available in the older film-based version, said Shelly Gibson, the owner of Village Picture Shows.

"If we don't get the new digital projectors, we have to close; we can't get our product," she said.

The Village Picture Shows, the Manchester area’s only movie theater, is hoping a fund-raising campaign using the Internet-based Kickstarter program
The Village Picture Shows, the Manchester area's only movie theater, is hoping a fund-raising campaign using the Internet-based Kickstarter program will generate sufficient donations to defray the cost of converting the theater's equipment to a new digitall format. The campaign's goal of $175,000 needs to be met by March 15. (Andrew McKeever Photo)
It's a problem facing most if not all small community movie theaters around the country, she added.

In an attempt to raise the needed money, which the theater cannot finance internally, Gibson has turned to a fund-raising format that has become increasingly popular for small scale enterprises that may be shut out of other sources of capital. "Kickstarter" is a Web site launched in 2009 that connects entrepreneurs or small businesses with potential donors who are willing and able to support ideas or causes with donations, usually in return for a comparably valued good or service. Often referred to as "crowd sourcing," the mechanism can help direct many donors to support something they perceive of value, without the expectation of a financial return on their investment.


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The Village Picture Show's Kickstarter campaign launched on Tuesday, Jan. 15, and will run for 60 days, or until March 15. If by that time, the money raised falls short of the $175,000 goal, then the money will be returned and the theater will close shortly afterwards, probably around April 1, Gibson said.

She has owned the theater for about 10 years and for much of that time - especially for the past few years - has run it on a break-even basis, she said.

She first heard about Kickstarter from a customer about six months ago, she said.

"I started researching it, and looking at all the options," she said. "I didn't like the option the (film) distributors put forth to me (converting to digital equipment or closing), and I thought this would be the best way to do it."

In a relatively small market like Manchester, getting popular, well-advertised, first-run movies to show hasn't been a simple matter. The cost of shipping heavy containers of film stock is expensive, and the fees Gibson and the movie theater have been able to send to film distributors for what is in effect the rental of a movie are often small, she said.

If the campaign is successful, however, and the theater remains open, the new digital era offers some bright possibilities, and would not simply be a case of postponing the day when the business would have to close anyway, she said.

When all the film distributors would have to ship is mainly a small package with a storage disk containing the digital files, the opportunities for showing more first-run movies will increase. Those shipping costs will then plummet, and the equipment will also allow for the option of streaming other video of special events and performances, she said.

Despite the advent of movies streamed over the Internet, and services like Netflix and Redbox making it easy for consumers to watch movies at home, Gibson believes there is still plenty of life left in the traditional movie theater business.

"I've had far too many customers come up to me and say 'this is far too vital to be able to go to a movie,'" she said. "I don't think the movie theater is going to die and I think the digital equipment is going to open up more opportunities for us."

The Village Picture Shows employs about 6 people, a mixture of full and part-time jobs, she said.

When word began spreading about the theater's predicament and the likelihood it would close if the needed funds were unavailable, a group of area businesses began exploring ways to help.

Seth Bongartz, the executive director of Hildene, said that losing the only local movie theater would be an unfortunate blow to the community just at a time when things seemed to be on a upswing following the successful construction of the Roundabout and an expanded and improved Park House at the Rec Park.

The theater, while technically a private, for-profit business, has been run largely as a "community service" by Gibson, and merited support from the community, he said.

"This is something that if we didn't have it we'd be working hard to get it," he said. "It's important to the community because when people come here, it's one of the amenities people expect."

Beyond that economic point, movies provide an important venue for a social, or shared community experience, as opposed to simply watching a show from home, he said.

Frank Hanes, a co-owner of the Inn at Manchester, said he would be taking five percent of the revenue from his room reservations and donating those sums towards the Kickstarter campaign for the next two months. Having a viable movie theater in town was an attraction for many of his guests, he said.

"All it took was one phone call from Seth and I said, 'this is a no-brainer,'" he said, adding he hoped to spread the word via his inn's social media outreach.

The Wilburton Inn is also planning to host an "Oscar's Party" on Feb. 24, and are hoping the use that opportunity to raise about $1,000 to benefit the Kickstarter campaign, said innkeeper Georgette Levis.

The inn held the event last year and she thought it would be a good way to try to help this year, she said.

"It seemed like a natural fit," she said.

The Chamber of Commerce will also be trying to get the word out among its members as well as serving as a place for those who would rather drop off checks than make digital payments. The money collected will then be funneled into the Kickstarter campaign, said Berta Maginniss, the chamber's executive director.

"There is a lot of interest in making sure this doesn't go away - it's important to both visitor's and permanent residents alike," she said. "Once there's widespread knowledge, I think there will be a lot of folks who want to help."

It's an all-or-nothing program - if the Kickstarter mechanism doesn't yield up the $175,000 needed for the digital conversion, the theater will close. If, on the other hand, it raises more than the minimum amount, the money above and beyond the $175,000 will go into more upgrades for the facility, Gibson said.

To make a donation, or to learn more about Kickstarter, visit kickstarter.com.