By Wade Coggeshall
DANVILLE — When Tracie Shearer oversaw the renovation and reopening of the Royal Theater here in 2001, after years of closure and disrepair, the first movie screened there was "It's a Wonderful Life."
The theme of that film - a town rallying around one of its own - is pertinent to this landmark 12 years later.
Shearer is undertaking a fundraising campaign to convert the Royal from screening 35 mm prints to digital. That entails buying a new projector with a server. Sound equipment will also need upgrading. Shearer estimates the total cost to be between $50,000 and $60,000.
"That's too much money for us to pay and expect to make back," she said.
It's still uncertain when the conversion will be complete. Shearer has heard it could be by the end of this year, maybe sooner. Part of it depends on Kodak, a major manufacturer of film prints that's currently going through bankruptcy.
All of the major movie theater chains have already converted to digital technology. Many of the independent film houses like the Royal have begun the process. That means not as many film prints are being made because of less demand, making it tougher to find newly-released movies.
Shearer has mostly avoided that problem so far, but time is running out. She started a digital change challenge on Jan. 2 by asking fans on the theater's Facebook page to donate $10 each. There's also a container at the concession stand where patrons can drop in donations, as well as a PayPal link on their website at RoyalTheaterDanville.info. Shearer said they made more than $100 just at the concession stand one recent weekend, and about $1,500 total in the first week.
"I truly appreciate every $10 that comes in because that's what's making this happen," she said, though adding she's also being realistic. "I know it's not going to be that much every week. Obviously I'm not going to raise $60,000 by asking people for $10 on Facebook."
The Royal has long been about more than just showing movies. It also routinely hosts standup comedy and live music. Jennie DeVoe chose the venue for the release show of her first holiday CD in December and sold it out on a Thursday.
"Business has been solid," Shearer said. "We did a lot (in the last) year. We're still viable and growing all the time."
A couple of upcoming comedy shows - the Jestival Comedy Festival Jan. 23 and 24 and the Senior Comedy Tour on Valentine's Day - will double as fundraisers for the Royal's digital conversion. Such programming isn't enough to sustain the theater.
"If we can't continue to play movies, it would take us about a month (before we'd have to close)," Shearer said. "We have to make this conversion or we simply can't stay open. The numbers don't justify us staying open strictly for the non-movie events we do. It won't pay the bills."
Their myriad offerings do allow them to sell movie tickets and concessions at about half the cost of the franchised cinemas. Shearer doesn't think the quality of digital technology is enough to justify raising their prices.
"We do that so whole families can come here without (having to spend too much)," she said. "If our prices became what everyone else's are, they're going to go where they can get stadium seating (and other amenities)."
That doesn't mean the Royal won't invest any of its own money in turning digital. If they're able to raise $40,000, for example, they'll fund the rest. As it stands, they can't shoulder the whole burden.
Shearer doesn't want the landmark, which has been on the courthouse square since 1914, to close and decline again.
"Danville is thriving right now," she said. "You don't want something like this to shut down. I've had people tell me, when they're looking for a place to live, that they like what's going on in Danville."
Jaime Bohler Smith, president of the Downtown Danville Partnership, agrees.
"The Royal Theater is certainly an identifiable landmark in downtown Danville," she said. "It has a significant historical presence that's offered generations of families positive experiences and memories. It's important to remember that as we look to preserve Danville."
It's not your typical movie theater either, even beyond its vintage marquee and stage. It often hosts events for various community organizations and school groups, even birthday parties and piano recitals. That aforementioned marquee can be seen in a music video by local talent Levi Riggs and was once used for a marriage proposal.
Bohler Smith says a place like the Royal offers an emotional experience for its guests.
"People love that hometown charm it provides," she said. "They like having those experiences - whether it's a newly-released movie, a concert, or even just stopping in for a box of popcorn during Christmas on the Square. That nostalgia is very important to our community and our visitors. It's certainly one of the anchor tenants in downtown Danville."
Shearer plans to continue raising funds for the digital conversion until the end of March or beginning of April. She'd like to make a commitment on new equipment by early May.
"We don't want to get caught," Shearer said. "We're not sure when (the transition) is going to happen, but we want to be ready. We don't want to spend the summer playing whatever we can scrounge up."