Curtain call: 'Save America's Cinemas' helps indie theatres convert


“I am going to unite the fronts and make sure that none of these places has to close.”
Walter T. Shaw, “filmmaker and former jewel thief for the Mafia,” is talking about the threat of digital conversion that roughly 3,000 independent cinemas are still facing. “It’s just not right. There are many people out there who could make this go away. They just haven’t heard about it yet. I am going to make the noise until something is done.”

With help from his many friends in the acting community and a lineup of impressive industry partners and sponsors, Shaw founded “Save America’s Cinemas” (SAC), a nonprofit agency that provides financial assistance to those who are unable “to afford the required high digital conversion costs from 35mm equipment.” (You too can give your share and donate at

“No less than 50,000 lives are affected by what happens over the next 18 months,” Shaw warns. “Some of these theatres have been run by the same families for 70, 80 years. We are keenly aware of the historical, emotional and cultural damage that will be caused by the massive closings of these well-established community icons.”

Yet only a few months ago, Shaw didn’t even know about the pending digital doom, he admits. Having his morning coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts near his home base in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, “I came upon a story in USA Today how digital is replacing 35mm film.” A subsequent call to the National Association of Theatre Owners, mentioned in the article, provided him with additional insight and became his call to action. “They told me ShowEast was about to happen in my own backyard. So I went,” he recalls about becoming a quick study. “I had to learn all this and get up to speed… Read books and articles, talk to people and take meeting after meeting after meeting. This is not my forte, you know. I’m a filmmaker.”

Thankfully, Shaw found a good guide and many teachers at ShowEast, meeting with Harkness, Dolby and several of the server manufacturers. “Tony Adamson of Texas Instruments showed me around and introduced me to the different vendors that license their DLP Cinema technology.” Shaw calls it a “homecoming of sorts” because Texas Instruments was involved with making “the circuitry for speaker phones, conference calling, call forwarding and the like technology that my father had invented.” While working as a systems engineer for Bell Telephone during its monopoly heyday, Shaw Jr. explains that Walter L. Shaw had developed many of the modern telecom technologies, “even the ‘Red Phone’ used by Eisenhower to contact the Kremlin.” Although Shaw Sr. was holding “more than 39 patents, they stopped him from bringing his inventions to market and tried to freeze my father out. He fought all his life against this injustice.”

Not surprisingly, Shaw Jr. made “a documentary crime story” about this, the aptly titled March 1 release Genius on Hold ( “I come from a line of people who worked for groups that are trying to squeeze out the little guys,” Shaw says about his very personal motivation “to jump on the bandwagon and help all those mom-and-pop cinemas.” Going to Newark, New Jersey, with his father, “there was only one cinema in that neighborhood… I don’t want to see this happen without a fight. I want them to be saved.”

To save his own family, Shaw Sr. “turned to the Mafia and designed the ‘black box’ that allowed Mob bookmakers to make toll-free, untraceable calls.” While this landed the father in front of a Senate subcommittee on organized crime, it also introduced the son into the latter. How Walter T. first became “a recognized soldier for a national Mafia boss,” then joined the “Dinnertime Burglar” ring, and finally formed his own crew of jewel thieves is another story altogether. One that Shaw intends to make into a feature film called A License to Steal ( “I served 11 years,” he admits. “Among our alleged victims were Liberace, the DuPont and Firestone families.”

Despite a charming Wizard of Oz theme, the Jan. 11 drawing for the first SAC digital-cinema equipment package looked more like a friendly gathering of the extended “Sopranos” family. Actors Vincent Pastore, Tom Sizemore, Debi Mazar, Kathrine Narducci, Frank Stallone and Chuck Zito listened to their colleague Frank Vincent tell them how he developed his lifelong appreciation of classic films at a neighborhood theatre. “God bless you. Walter, for doing this,” Pastore said, “and you can count on us to do everything we can to support this great cause.”

Also showing their support in Miami were participating manufacturers and program sponsors such as Dolby Digital Cinema, Doremi, RealD, Texas Instruments and Christie. The latter’s Scott McCallum and George D. Scheckel represented the exclusive projector partner of Save America’s Cinemas. “Christie will provide DCI-compliant digital-cinema projectors when ordered for delivery and installation at designated SAC locations through to the end of 2014,” the company confirmed. “This initiative complements Christie’s own support for independent exhibitors and small-town cinemas, with whom it has worked as a trusted partner for more than 80 years.” In addition to helping “another American icon” by working with the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (related story here), Christie “is pleased to support SAC’s goal of ensuring that the several thousand remaining film screens across the United States can realize the advantages of converting to digital-cinema technology.”

Six of those several thousands were present when “the Tin Man” pulled the winning ticket from a bucket of popcorn: t he Holiday Star Theater (Park Forest, Illinois), Cinemajik Valley 4 Cinemas (Evanston, Wyoming), Rio Theatre (Sweet Home, Oregon), Cinema Saver 5 (Endicott, New York), FunTime Cinemas of Southern Pennsylvania (Kendig Square Movies 6, Willow Street; Colonial Park Cinemas 4, Harrisburg; South York Cinemas 4, York) and Bonham Theatre (Fairbury, Nebraska).

“All of the theatre owners should be helped,” whether they can participate in the events that Shaw has planned for across the country or not. “Having them there is important for the buzz and publicity. It is going to take everybody’s concentrated effort, with the entire community of actors, writers, directors and producers getting involved. It is going to affect everybody in the business.”

Shaw is attending CinemaCon and looking at Manhattan and the Midwest for SAC’s next equipment giveaways. His ideas on how to “turn up the volume on this” and for kicking up donations and publicity include celebrity fundraising dinners, a film festival across the nation and memorabilia auctions. As well as getting the word out on national television shows. “I can’t save 3,100 theatres, that is not going to happen by me alone,” he cautions. “We need a Carl Icahn, Donald Trump or Mark Zuckerberg for that. Four-hundreed projectors is a realistic number…and $20 million is an amount that I believe we can raise.”

It seems only appropriate that Cinema Saver, a discount five-plex (, became the first theatre to be rescued by Save America’s Cinemas. “I knew it would be worth going, even if we had ended up not winning,” says Rachel Daddezio, the marketing coordinator for FunTime Cinemas ( who also entered Cinema Saver, where she had worked “from high school all the way through my graduate studies.” (The theatres are independently owned and operated by sisters Ronda Fitzsimmons and Amber Earle, respectively.)

“It was a great opportunity to be meeting with other movie theatre owners, to talk about things that we’ve tried doing and to share stories about our attempts to convert. We really wanted to meet the organizers of SAC and thank them for their efforts. They are the ones who are really educating the public about how difficult it is for certain theatres to afford this.”

Who educated her about Save America’s Cinemas? “We received an e-mail from NATO about applying to this program,” Daddezio recalls. “As soon as we found out, we scrambled to get the applications back to NATO, which consisted of technical specifications for each of our screens, how many seats each auditorium holds, as well as pictures and history of the theatres.”

In the meantime, SAC has set up a form online. “Almost 70 requests came in within 35 to 40 days of the initial mailing done by NATO,” Shaw confirms. “Since the kickoff event, we had another 50 or 60 that applied on our website because now they know we’re alive and out here. They can reach us.”

“We also had to solicit letters from our customers that explained what our theatre means to the community and their families,” Daddezio continues. “Within minutes of sending out a newsletter blast, the replies just started pouring in. We could barely keep up with it.” She is still reeling with obvious joy in her voice. “It was really nice seeing all the kind words.”

Concurs Cinema Saver owner Amber Earle, “I believe our theatre got the most feedback by far. Our customers love us and they really want us to stay there. They came through and let everybody know just that. It was very, very cool.” And provided much appreciated reassurance. “I love this business too much and knew we were going to have to go digital. We’re in a lucky position where we have paid off the loans for buying the Cinema Saver building several years ago, so that we can remortgage to pay for the equipment. What we weren’t sure about was whether we would have to raise our prices to do so. My call from up above was, ‘We are going to do this without raising prices. We are not going to put this back on our customers.’ Cinema Saver is a discount theatre, that’s what they love about us. That’s our niche here and we’ll need to do this without raising prices.”

Daddezio relays that a lot of thought went into how to make that goal a reality. Unlike what other theatres have recently done (see our reports here and here), “we decided against a Kickstarter fund because in the end if you don’t meet your goal, you don’t get any money. We stayed in-house with our own ‘Dollars for Digital’ campaign” that explained the situation and even included a special video. “For every donation that our customers make, we put up a thank-you card on the theatre lobby walls. They can also support us online via a dedicated PayPal account. It’s not nearly enough, but it certainly helps.”

Winning the SAC equipment proved helpful in fund-raising, as Earle has noticed an increase in donations. “It helped to get the word out… Every dollar that we do not have to borrow means that much less in our monthly payments so that I won’t have to raise our prices.” Earle equally counts on anticipated savings from the new equipment, be it for lower utility or staff costs, or from additional savings such as taking the theatre website in-house. “All without changing a whole lot and without our customers getting any inferior service,” she assures. “They don’t know how much power we consume when they are watching a movie. These are low-impact ways to offset the cost.”

Earle’s economies have earned Cinema Saver the trust of a private lender. “He is our guardian angel,” she says with obvious gratitude. “He loves our theatre and has volunteered to help there for the last eight or nine years. When we first sat down and talked about every aspect of the conversion—should we do it, or go out of business and do something else,” she recalls, “he was very, very sad. ‘You can’t go out of business,’ he said. ‘Everybody loves the cinema.’” When this benefactor, who would prefer not to be named, first offered to provide the loan on the equipment, Earle thought that was “really sweet,” but “we wouldn’t do that” to him. “When we were getting closer to making the digital jump and looking at various commercial options, he told us again that he was serious about loaning us the money.” And now, she enthuses, “the equipment is definitely going into all of our screens. We are already on the schedule for March.”

The very day of our conversation, Jan. 22, in fact, marked the beginning of the changeover at her sister’s FunTime Cinemas. “Ronda’s theatres are going to be first,” she laughs, “and my screens are last.” No sibling rivalry then, even though FunTime was an entrant into the SAC contest as well? “We love each other to death, but we do have very different management styles,” she chuckles. “So we really wouldn’t want to be business partners. She left me to attend to my theatre and opened her own theatres.”

On how to celebrate the dawn of digital, Fitzsimmons and Earle agree to disagree for now. “Rachel and I are very excited about the idea of having some kind of party to launch it. My sister not so much,” Earle laughs. “Nothing catered and fancy, but pizza and wings, perhaps. I want to really launch it, stand there when they come out and talk to our moviegoers about how they liked it. Did they enjoy it, or not? Is there anything we can do better?” This will probably not happen during the first couple of weeks, however. She wants to wait until “all the bugs have been ironed out and when we can really be confident that it is all okay and ready to rock ’n’ roll.”

Earle is certainly looking forward to adding a happy ending. “It will be great to take the story from October—when we had no money and were striving to go digital—to now winning the big prize, to ‘Wow, we’re here.’ Digital is installed, it’s up and running. We are 100% in business and selling lots of tickets.”

Another one of America’s Cinemas Saved. Here’s to many more!