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Couple works to save Braxton County’s only movie theater

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Walk into the Elk Theatre, pass the ticket booth and concession stand, through a pair of red satin curtains, past the double doors that open onto a movie screen. Walk up the stairs, carpeted in a fading print, down a narrow, dimly lit hallway. Turn left.

There's a room there, with a pair of windows overlooking the theater's single, white movie screen. It's a small room, but it holds a large projection machine, and a lot of 35 mm film.

It's a classic setup, made of components that haven't changed much in the last 40 years. But that's about to change. It has to.

"After the switch it will just be a digital projector and a little box with the movie," said Chuck Murphy, who owns the theater with his wife.

In 2013, production companies will stop offering 35-millimeter prints of films - which has been used to shoot, distribute and view movies for nearly a century - and begin to rely solely on digital copies of first-run movies.

That means replacing nearly all of the projection equipment at the Elk at a cripplingly high cost: a digital projector will cost $30,000 to $40,000. If Murphy can't raise the money by the end of 2013, he'll have to close the doors on Braxton County's only movie theater.

To find another place to see a first-run movie, you have to drive more than 30 miles.  

The Elk was built sometime in the 1930s, but lacks many of the frills one usually associates with a theatre of that period. It's a big box of a building, more practical than elegant, comfortable but not lush.

And it's not a moneymaker. Chuck and his wife, Jane, bought the theater in 2007 just to keep it from closing, never expecting to turn much of a profit. They both have full-time jobs (he's a high school teacher, while she has a computer repair business).

They alone work to keep the theater up and running - they have no staff, aside from themselves.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Jane made a small batch of popcorn just before the patrons started arriving for the Sunday matinee viewing of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

"We never know how many we'll have," she said. They didn't want to waste any if it turned out to be a slow day.  

The theatre usually sees 50 to 150 patrons each weekend, but that figure is flexible. The weekend they showed "Breaking Dawn Part 2," the last installment in the Twilight saga, they filled nearly all 250 seats in one night - but they've had enough flops to post a policy for slow days in the window ("Cannot show movie for less than five customers").

When Chuck and Jane bought the theatre, they were looking to buy a business where they could work together. Chuck spent 20 years in the Navy so they had "spent enough time apart." The theater seemed like a good fit, with a workload that two people could handle.

 "It's a nice setup," Jane said from the concession stand.  "I work in here and he's in the ticket booth."

Besides, Chuck has always loved movie theaters - his first job was at a drive-in theater as a teenager. He remembers when, on some Friday nights, it was so crowded that "you couldn't get a car in."

But the Elk has proven to be an entirely different beast - or maybe it's just that the industry has changed. Most of the money from admission fees goes directly to pay film royalties, booking fees and film shipping. The concession stand pays for operating expenses and utilities bills.

And the aging building is in constant need of repairs and maintenance: in the past few years they've fixed a leaky roof, worked on plumbing and replaced the torn movie screen.

"We didn't think we'd make money, but we didn't expect to lose quite as much as we have," Chuck said.

The conversion to digital is a crippling demand on such a business.

Production studios have faced myriad complaints for pushing so hard for digital conversion, so quickly. The digital format makes production and distribution less expensive for studios, but few of those benefits are passed on to independent theaters.

But much of the focus has been on art-house or revival theaters that are clinging to film in the name of aesthetics or the purity of the form, or because they show vintage movies. At the Elk, the resistance is more down to earth.

"There's really nothing else for teens to do here in their spare time, and a lot of our families don't have the money to drive a half hour out of the county to a movie," Jane said.  

Chuck and Jane are trying to raise the money for a digital projector through donations from the community. So far, they've raised about $1,000.

To donate, visit elktheatre.com and donate via PayPal, or call the theater at 304-765-2517.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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