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Digital switch may doom movie theater

TAMPA — The Tampa Pitcher Show, a 32-year-old movie theater popular among local visual artists and fans of cult films like Rocky Horror Picture Show, faces a harsh modern ultimatum: Go digital or go dark.

If the owner cannot raise enough money within the next 90 days to convert the theater from 35 mm film to the digital medium used by most major studios, the Tampa Pitcher Show may have to close.

It's the same challenge faced and overcome by the historic Tampa Theatre downtown and by the few remaining drive-in theaters across Tampa Bay.

The Tampa Pitcher Show has temporarily installed a digital system that will cost $65,000 to keep. Owner Wayne Valenti said if he doesn't raise another $30,000 within 90 days, he will have to return the system.

During the past few years, the Tampa Pitcher Show, 14416 N. Dale Mabry Highway, has been a venue for unique presentations: locally produced independent films, cult movie screenings, stand-up comedians, live theater groups, charity events and small concerts.

Local artists see it as a perfect setting for their events, with its table seating, dinner options and, of course, the pitchers of beer that are its namesake.

“It is the best way to watch movies,” said Greg LeSar, a film professor at the University of Tampa and the Art Institute of Tampa.

LeSar's students regularly screen their movies at the theater.

“If it closes, I don't know if my students can find another venue that works.”

LeSar said other theaters would welcome his students, but none are as affordable or as accommodating.

While local visual art shows are booked regularly and draw crowds, Valenti said he pays the bills through the first-run Hollywood films screenings that he could lose without the conversion.

Valenti said he learned two weeks ago that 35 mm film prints are a relic of the past. All major studio films will be released to theaters via digital media. “Anchorman 2” is the final first-run 35 mm film to be shown at Tampa Pitcher Show.

“We knew the change was coming but we had hoped to have the needed money by the time it happened,” said Valenti.

Major movie studios began pushing theaters into the digital age a few years ago and warned theater owners they would stop distributing 35 mm films by the end of December 2013.

Other locally owned theaters were prepared for this changeover. In May 2013, Joy-Lan Drive-In, a theater on U.S. 301 north of Dade City that is more than 50 years old, spent $70,000 converting to digital. The 63-year-old Fun-Lan Drive-In on East Hillsborough Avenue began converting to digital during the summer of 2013.

Valenti said that film studios have offered major multiplex theaters substantial subsidies to make the conversion to the digital projection system, but independent single-screen theaters like his were not eligible for such assistance.

Besides a new projector, the $65,000 Tampa Pitcher Show needs would provide a sound system and the special screen the major studios require for their films to be shown.

“Because we have a system installed temporarily, we will be able to start getting the first run movies digitally,” said Valenti. “I hope that brings us increased foot traffic so we can afford it.”

Asked if he will close without the money, Valenti said he doesn't want to consider the possibility.

“It's up in the air I guess,” he said.

Film professor LeSar said if Valenti cannot raise the money, perhaps the theater can survive without major first-run movies — by licensing movie classics still available on 35 mm film and filling the theater with fans of the genre.

The local visual arts community is rallying to Valenti's aid, helping spread the word of his fundraising campaign through Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website for creative projects. Thus far, over $5,000 has been donated.

Valenti said a handful of independent filmmakers have inquired about hosting events at the theater, and all proceeds would go to the campaign.

“This is about doing what is right,” said Dan Brienza, executive director of the Florida Film Network, a Tampa-based chamber of commerce for aspiring filmmakers that has frequently used the Tampa Pitcher Show as a venue for film screenings and parties.

“Wayne has always been there for us and everyone in the local film community. It is time for us to do something for him.”

Brienza will host a night of locally produced independent short films at the Tampa Pitcher Show 10 p.m. Jan. 24.

Deb Kelly hosts Life Amplified, a spoken-word variety show, at the Tampa Pitcher Show to raise money for local charities. She said the Valenti family lets her use the theater rent free and keeps only a small portion of the proceeds.

“It is a theater that needs to be saved,” said Andy Lalino, host of the Tampa Pitcher Show's Cult Movie Mania, a showcase of the wild world of cult film, including horror, sci-fi, fantasy, art-house, exploitation, biker films and experimental animation. “We are running out of places that show anything other than the movies of the week.”

“It's a home for movies without homes,” added Tampa filmmaker Joel Wynkoop. “It's an icon here in Tampa.”


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