Movie patrons wait for the showing of "Hotel Transylvania" Jan. 19 at Ellsworth Air Force Base theater in South Dakota on its last day of operation. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service theater serving airmen and their families is one of 60 across the globe that's closing because it's too expensive to switch from 35 millimeter film prints to an all-digital projection format. (Dirk Lammers/ The Associated Press)
ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. — Stacey Darling loves watching family movies at the Ellsworth Air Force Base theater in South Dakota because it's so much more affordable than taking her three children to the multiplex in nearby Rapid City.
Darling, whose husband is an airman, has been catching second-run films on base for about 2 1/2 years, and was there Saturday for the theater's last showing — a screening of the animated movie "Hotel Transylvania." The movie theater is among 60 around the globe run by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service that is screening its last picture show amid the industry's conversion to digital projection.
"We always come out for the cartoons," said Darling, of Grand Forks, N.D. "We like the family movies."
Darling said she wishes she could go to the theater even more now that her husband, Senior Master Sgt. David Darling, has deployed to southwest Asia.
It's just not cost effective for the exchange service to invest the $120,000 per theater needed to convert from 35 millimeter film to the new format at the theaters that are being closed, said spokesman Judd Anstey. Sixty theaters will make the upgrade.
"At locations where customer attendance is decreased due to a preference for off-installation entertainment venues, a determination has been made that continued operation is no longer a viable option," Anstey said.
The exchange service runs department-store-style retail outlets, fast-food restaurants, barbers and similar services on military facilities.
Saturday's "Hotel Transylvania" screening at Ellsworth Air Force Base drew about 250 people, thanks in part to the theater forgoing the admission price for its farewell flick.
Teri Marino wishes Ellsworth patrons knew earlier about the closure so they could try to raise the cash needed to save the theater, which showed its first flick in 1969.
Marino, whose husband is a master sergeant living on base, brought her 9-year-old daughter to the final show and was enjoying the camaraderie between the mothers.
"When you're in the military, you're like family," said Marino, 37. "Especially when our husbands are deployed, the mothers — us women — stick together."
Stateside base theaters are limited to second-run movies, which typically have already spent six weeks in an off-base multiplex before. Ticket prices are lower, as is attendance. Base theaters have also been hurt by increased competition from video streaming services and DVD rental kiosks, Anstey said.
"The digital age has certainly made it easier to stay home and get content delivered directly to one's own living room," he said. "In addition, the theater business has become more competitive with multiplex and IMAX theaters in many locations adjacent to military installations.
Of the theaters making the conversion to the digital format, about 26 are in the U.S. and about 34 are overseas for a total cost of about $7.4 million, Anstey said.
Camp Zama in Japan, Spangdahlem Air Force Base in Germany, Camp Arifjan in Kuwait and Fort Hood in Texas are the first four to make the jump, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2013, Anstey said.
David Burnett, force support squadron commander for the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth, said base officials are working to ensure other movie options, such as more DVD kiosks and an arrangement with Carmike Cinemas in Rapid City for a military discount.
He said the theater has been an important spot for on-base families, especially those living in the dorms.
"It gives them an outlet," Burnett said. "It gives them something to do."
Ron Reynolds, who was stationed on the base years ago, has served as the theater's projectionist for more than a decade.
He loads a reel on one of the twin projectors before briefly turning down the upstairs room's speaker to make sure the sound is at its best.
"Projectionist is one of the greatest part-time jobs you'll ever have," said Reynolds, 49. "Sadly, all good things must come to an end."
Reynolds' son, 29-year-old Tyler Murphy, remembers seeing "Titanic" at Ellsworth as a teenager.
"This is a little bit of a nostalgic type of moment," said Murphy, now a teacher at Sturgis Brown High School. "It's never going to be the same anymore."