Digital movies may close curtain on High Springs' Priest Theatre

The city landmark needs about $85,000 in equipment upgrades


The front of the Priest Theatre seen on Friday, April 12, 2013 in High Springs.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 7:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 7:11 p.m.

HIGH SPRINGS — The closing of a movie theater is a metaphor for the decline of a town in “The Last Picture Show” — a favorite of many film fans.

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A Kickstarter drive to raise $85,000 has been underway for about two weeks, and so far $12,684 has been raised with 47 days to go as of Wednesday afternoon. The Alligoods are offering goodies depending on the amount of the donation, such as commemorative T-shirts and posters, free admission or free popcorn. The Priest site is at www.kickstarter.com/projects/909996519/save-the-priest

High Springs is not the dusty, dying Texas town in which that movie is set, but residents here nonetheless are hoping life doesn't imitate art.

The Priest Theatre at 15 NW First. St. — for more than 100 years a stage for youthful romances, a social hub and a place to escape reality or simply enjoy a first-run movie at a cut-rate price — soon might screen its last picture show unless fans of the theater come through with money for digital technology.

Priest owners Janet and Alan Alligood said movies soon will no longer be distributed as film reels. Instead, movies will be digital. That will require a digital projector and other equipment, which cost about $85,000.

“It's not just that the children have a safe place to go or that it is something for our kids to do, it is a piece of High Springs history,” Janet Alligood said. “It is an iconic place in High Springs. It started with vaudeville. Somebody was on that stage. There are ghosts in the past that you want to revisit.”

The big box of a theater is as popular today as it was when entertainers first took the stage a century ago.

Screening films only on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, the Priest often has a full house at 240, or close to it. The movies are first run, usually about a week or two after initial release, and cost $5.

Some High Springs natives have been watching movies at the Priest all of their lives.

“I have grown up going most every Monday night to see a movie at the Priest, and now my kids go there most every Monday night,” Dena Griffith wrote on the theater's Facebook page. “It's nice knowing that you can send your kids there knowing they will be safe and not watch something they don't need to and not spend a lot of money. I pray you don't close down.”

But relative newcomers enjoy movies in the red-curtained, balconied theater as well.

Jose Valdes, the owner of Ship It and More in High Springs, has lived in the area about nine years and said his family members are regulars. Valdes added that his 17-year-old daughter, Aida, and her friends from neighboring counties meet at the Priest.

“I definitely think it would be a loss if it shut down. It's part of the charm of the town,” Valdes said. “It's also a lot more affordable than going somewhere else. A lot of times we'll wait to see a movie here rather than going to Gainesville.”

Independently owned theaters across the U.S. are facing the same predicament as the Priest — and they already were dwindling prior to digital as single-screen houses gave way to multi-screen megaplexes.

Statistics from the National Association of Theatre Owners website shows that the U.S. had 39,580 movie screens at 5,697 individual sites in 2011, including 606 drive-ins. That averages nearly seven screens per site.

More than 17,000 screens now are showing digital, which provides a crisper picture and is cheaper to produce and distribute, according to the association. The national chains such as Regal Cinemas are leading the conversion to digital.

Rick Fosbrink, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America, said the need to convert to digital is a major problem for independent theaters.

“Unfortunately we are on the downhill side of the problem. I don't know that there is a way to really do anything about it at this point in time,” Fosbrink said. “It was a conversation that started a couple of years ago, and everyone said, ‘oh, it will never happen.' It became more and more realistic, and now a lot of smaller independents are stuck.”

Janet Alligood said it is already difficult to get films from some distributors. All distributors might be digital-only by the end of the year, she added.

“We are being told by Hollywood that there will be no 35-millimeter film by the end of 2013,” she said. “Fox has been the strongest about it. My booker told me that by mid-2013, don't call me.”

The Alligoods took over the theater from Janet's parents, Bobby and Janice Sheffield, who ran it for about 26 years. It was built in 1910 by car dealer William Priest and initially featured live performances on the stage before movies existed.

Only movies appropriate for children are shown.

The Sheffields have seen a lot of movies at the theater and have some of their own favorites.

“ ‘Driving Miss Daisy,' ” Janice Sheffield said.

“ ‘Forest Gump' — that was probably one of the best,” Bobby Sheffield said. “ ‘Saving Private Ryan' — that was a good one.”

There have been some stinkers.

“There have been too many sorry ones,” Bobby Sheffield said. “If you want one of the sorry ones — oh man, ‘White Men Can't Jump.' In 10 minutes we shut it off. It was all cursing. We gave people their money back and went home.”

The town hopes they don't have to shut the movies off for good.

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