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Empire cinema hopes to reel in cash in move from 35mm film to digital

Linton Culver with the very old 35mm projector
Linton Culver with the very old 35mm projector

A cinema is preparing for a galactic battle... to complete the costly switch from 35mm film.

The Empire in Sandwich is one of the last picture houses to have fought off the digital revolution.

Now the Art Deco movie theatre needs to find the cash to ditch the nostalgic film reels and adopt 21st Century technology. 

The Empire, in Delf Street, was built in the 1930s.

Linton Culver, manager and also projectionist, feels the Hollywood studios are striving for their millions at the expense of the smaller, independent cinemas like his.

Mr Culver said: “The big Hollywood studios are obsessed with replacing the 35mm film but we have been making films like that for more than 100 years.

“For the studios, going digital is a cheap and easy alternative. It’s not costly for them but it is very costly for us.”

The Empire, Sandwich, as it was during the 1930s
The Empire, Sandwich, as it was during the 1930s

Mr Culver said the Empire would need a whole new sound system and digital projector for the transfer, but as more and more films are solely being made in digital format this is a step that the Empire is going to have to make by the end of the year... providing they have enough funds.

The Empire shows popular films every week and a classic film once a month.

However, most classics are now being transferred to digital so even the golden oldies can’t be shown in 35mm format anymore.

Mr Culver said: “We will have to talk to the town council about a possible contribution. The council bought the cinema in the 1960s and has been very helpful so far.

"Now we’re going to need donations and will look into help from the district council and Kent County Council too.”

Rubin Powell shows the size of 35mm rolls of film
Rubin Powell shows the size of 35mm rolls of film

He added: “The picture quality and sound of digital is supposed to be perfect, but the average person wouldn’t notice that.

"I think one or two marks and scratches is part of the character of a film and for the old classics especially, digital is too perfect and rather clinical.

“A few years ago I never thought everything would be going digital like this but it’s the studios, they aren’t content with the millions they’re making already.”

The Empire opened its doors in 1937 as an Art Deco picture house, seating 600 in its circle and stalls. It was very popular right up until the 1960s when bingo became the main attraction.

Jo Stockdale, who has worked at the Empire for 16 years, was originally the bingo caller in the 1970s.

She said: “There’s been a lot of change over the years. It had 600 seats which were divided up to the 130 we have now.

A lot of the films we show are very popular but we’re limited, unfortunately we can’t show Liberace because it’s all on digital and of course we’re an old cinema, it will be very difficult and costly to transfer.”

“For the studios, going digital is a cheap and easy alternative. It’s not costly for them but it is very costly for us” - Linton Culver

Reuben Powell, 17, from Dover, attends Sir Roger Manwood’s School in Sandwich and has worked at the Empire for more than a year now, as does his older brother Zac Powell, 21, who attends the University of Kent.

Reuben helps with the shop and tickets and said that he much prefers the atmosphere of the Empire compared to that of the big, multiplex cinemas.

He said: “It’s much more relaxed than a multiplex and a much nicer atmosphere. We also run charity shows and children’s parties so it’s part of the community too.”

The Empire is already a very distinctive cinema but with recent developments in the film industry it may soon be a rare sight to see a 35mm projector and even a projectionist at all.

For more information on upcoming films and events visit the website at www.empiresandwich.co.uk or call 01304 620480.

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