The screens at the Buffalo Grove Theater seemed on the verge of going permanently dark last year.
The theater located at 120 McHenry Road in Buffalo Grove's Town Center mall faced closure unless it installed digital equipment needed to show new films, whose producers have left behind 35 mm film in favor of digital.
One year later, the theater has made a smooth transition to digital, but its future is not certain. The switch was possible only through a loan, which owner Debbie Benjamin said she has to repay through a $4,000 per month payment over five years.
She's holding fundraisers, including a raffle and auction, to help defray the cost, and is hoping patrons of the theater are willing to help. As extra incentive, a portion of the raffle and auction will benefit charitable causes as well, with 10 percent of the proceeds from the raffle going to a no-kill animal shelter and 50 percent to the late Paul Walker's charity, Reach Out Worldwide.
"Our hope is that we at least can generate enough doing fundraisers every month to cover our monthly payment, because we don't want to raise prices," Benjamin said. "We want to stay at our price point, because we're affordable for everybody. The nice thing about the fundraisers is that we are also using it to benefit other causes."
When you walk upstairs to the theater's projection room today, you might confuse it with an information technology department, with a row of what appears to be computer equipment alongside some of the old projectors that will soon be scrapped.
Doing a quick walk-through, Benjamin explained how you build the movie in the digital projector, touching the screen to set the schedule and control the sound. The movies are fed from a server to the projector. Studios send a locked hard drive to the theater that can only be unlocked with a key code that will expire after a certain time.
The move to digital is yet another step in the theater's evolution to a first-run cinema with the feel of a neighborhood theater.
Much of that feel has to do with Benjamin.
"When we took over, we decided we would try to be more community-based, because this theater didn't seem to be community-based. It was in the community, but not very active in the community," Benjamin said. "Every year we have adopted a family since we have been here, for the holidays. We have given money to certain charity organizations. Every Easter, we do a free Easter egg hunt for the kids. We have a lot of seniors that come here that are on fixed incomes. So we run specials for the seniors."
That attitude makes the theater popular with regular customers.
"This is why we come," said Buffalo Grove resident Jan Hacker. "We love her. She is absolutely the most wonderful, wonderful person."
Benjamin said she has worked hard to overcome the somewhat shady reputation the theater had previously, when customers who walked in would find their feet sticking to the floors. There was graffiti on pillars in the theater, as well as on the bathroom walls and ceilings.
"The theater was a pit," Benjamin said. "It was known as a pit. People had stopped coming here because it was so dirty. And so we came in here and we cleaned the place up and we changed it from showing sub-run movies, which is like the lowest on the food chain of movies, to showing only first-run movies."
Benjamin made sure the theater was cleaned and painted. She also said she kicked out those who disrupted other moviegoers.
"I actually had an adult threaten to shoot me with a gun because I asked him to stop talking in the theater," she said.
One longtime customer, Alex Teneyuque, notices the difference.
"It's greatly improved. Better movie offerings. Better quality of food. It's a lot cleaner than it used to be," Teneyuque said. "It's a more friendly environment."