Conversion conversations: Willis Johnson, owner of Classic Cinemas | Bleader

Conversion conversations: Willis Johnson, owner of Classic Cinemas


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Willis Johnson and family, inside the Tivoli Theater (photo courtesy Classic Cinemas website)
  • Willis Johnson and family, inside the Tivoli Theater (photo courtesy Classic Cinemas website)
In the last installment of this interview series on digital projection, I spoke to Gene Siskel Film Center projectionist Brandon Doherty about accommodating multiple projection formats in a single booth. Based on the challenges Doherty described vis a vis that process, I can only imagine the stress of converting 100 projection booths, as the suburban theater chain Classic Cinemas recently did. To learn about such a large-scale conversion, I spoke with the chain's owner, Willis Johnson, who's been running theaters since 1978. He was more than happy to talk about the exhibition business, both before and after the recent conversion to DCP. Our conversation follows the jump.

Also, to indulge in a bit of self-promotion, tonight I'll be taking part in a conversation about the conversion from film to digital at the Gene Siskel Film Center, following the 6 PM screening of the documentary Side by Side. The panel will be moderated by WBEZ's Allison Cuddy, and my distinguished co-panelists will be Siskel programmer Barbara Scharres, School of the Art Institute professor Daniel Eisenberg, and local filmmaker Dan Nearing.

Ben Sachs: When did you convert your theaters to DCP?

Willis Johnson: It started at the beginning of December of last year, and we completed in the first week of March.

Why did the process take so long? I understand it only takes about a day to install a DCP unit.

If we were just putting in projectors, that would be one thing, but we also put in new sound processors in all of our theaters. And we had to upgrade almost all of our exhaust fans—because cooling for digital projection is very critical, and we found that there were some challenges with the exhaust systems that we had. We also put in an all-new automation system, so our [projection] booths are all connected to the Internet . . . It required a lot of rewiring—and new wiring—to install a central server at each theater. We were also getting ready for satellite delivery. We get all of our pre-show material via satellite at this time and some features. But we’re still in the process of finishing that part of it.

And, of course, there was all the old 35-millimeter equipment that had to come out of the booths! So we took the opportunity to move that. While I like to say that our booths are very clean, when you have equipment that’s been sitting there for 15, 20, or 30 years, there’s a lot behind them that needs to be cleaned. We took a number of things down, repainted all the booths . . .

How many DCP units did you end up installing?

One hundred units, across 13 theaters. We had about 25 screens that were already projecting digitally—we installed our first digital unit in 2005. But because we wanted [all the equipment] to be second-generation—meaning high frame rate, 4K—we pulled out all the old equipment and redid all of our booths.

Did you work with any of the movie studios to lease all these units? One hundred DCP systems is a big investment.

Well, there are two sides to those leasing systems. There’s the Virtual Print Fee that is paid [for projecting digitally], and we are part of that. But we did not lease the units through the studios. We did our own financing.

So you own all the units?

That is correct.

Tell me a bit about how the Virtual Print Fee works.

Well, the primary long-term beneficiaries of digital projection are the distributors. Because when films are distributed on 35-millimeter, they have to make prints for everybody who’s going to play the picture. And it was estimated that they spent about a billion dollars each year making prints. So, if they could get the exhibitors to convert to digital, they could save those billion dollars, which would go directly to their bottom line. The Virtual Print Fee was designed for a period of time—up to ten years, I believe—to give exhibitors a rebate for every digital print that they play. The idea is for distributors to help us pay for the cost of the equipment.

There are certain conditions that have to be met in order to participate in the program. They’re not that onerous, though I think it would be nice if some of the terms were a bit different . . .

Could you explain some of those conditions or are they confidential?

Some of them are confidential, but basically if your theater is open and a digital print is available, you are obligated to play it. So, if you want to have a special event or show something that’s going to have you miss a play time, then there is a penalty for that. Some people feel that it affects their flexibility—and, yes, it does—so that’s why the Virtual Print Fee is not desirable for them.

In reality, the program applies to first-run theaters. It does not really apply to second-run or bargain theaters. There’s a way of us getting some money from the distributors, but it’s very limited.

When did you start running movie theaters?


Have you witnessed anything else in the last 34 years that compares with the current conversion to digital projection?

Not at all. The only thing that comes close is the shift in sound formats. When I started in the business, you had basically monaural sound. Then Dolby came along with their noise-reduction system, and they kept improving it as time went on. Then other people got into that field: there was Dolby, Sony SDDS, and DTS, and they were all separate systems. Dealing with them was probably the most challenging thing that happened, from an exhibitor’s standpoint, but it in no way compared to the shift to DCP.

What are your feelings on this conversion, now that you’ve had about half a year to reflect on it?

Overall, I think it’s been positive. I’m not going to tell you that there haven’t been glitches. Because when you get a print, you also have a key file, which is what allows you to "unlock" the feature. And the key is theater specific and applies to a limited period of time. So, if you get a movie that’s opening on Friday, you’ll probably get a key that will let you access it on Thursday night—you know, to make sure they’ve given you the right file—and the play time will typically be two weeks. When that period is over, the file will be closed, unless you book it for an additional period. In that case, they’ll send you a new key when those first two weeks are up. Every once in a while, you’ll get the wrong key and you’re scrambling. There have been one or two times when we’ve been unable to show a movie because we did not have the correct key. But that’s not a prevalent situation.

But I think the quality of the picture is so much better [than 35-millimeter film], so consistent in terms of light level . . . There’s no dirt, there are no scratches. In effect, you have a brand-new print every time you show the movie.

the Tivoli Theaters exterior in 1928 (photo courtesy Classic Cinemas website)
  • The Tivoli Theater's exterior in 1928 (photo courtesy Classic Cinemas website)
Switching gears, what got you into the movie business and what’s motivated you to stay in it for this long?

To start, I owned the Tivoli Building in Downers Grove, of which the Tivoli Theater is a part. A gentleman who used to be in the exhibition business, Oscar Brotman, closed that theater in June of 1978. He put up a sign on the marquee that said "Closed for Remodeling" and left. So, there we sat with a theater and a mortgage. We interviewed prospective tenants, but we ultimately decided to run it ourselves. A young man who worked for Oscar said he’d like to run the theater if we would do the business side of it. For my wife and me, the business side was a piece of cake; running the theater was not a piece of cake, because we’d never done it.

So, that’s how it all started. We reopened the Tivoli in August of 1978, with a memorable film from Disney called Hot Lead and Cold Feet, starring Don Knotts and Tim Conway. And since that time, it’s been a lot of fun. We’ve run a number of theaters, concentrating on downtown theaters and historic ones, because it’s great being part of a community in that way. With older theaters, there are always a lot of memories in the community. We’ve been able to restore them and keep them cutting edge.

We have the Lake Theater in Oak Park, designed in 1936 by Thomas Lamb in the art deco style. He was based out of New York, but he was famous worldwide. And we have the Lindo Theater out in Freeport, built in 1922. The York in Elmhurst was built in 1924, Spanish style. And we’re presently involved in the Woodstock, constructed in 1927. We’re in the process of restoring the main auditorium—which had been divided (though not by us)—and adding seven other auditoriums.

We’ve managed to keep it a family affair. There’s my wife, myself, and our son, Chris. We don’t have any partners; it’s just the three of us. I won’t say there isn’t some grief every once in a while, but for the most part, we have fun.


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