The New Frontier: 'It's like magic'

EMMETT, Idaho (KBOI) - You won't find a more quintessential American street than Main here in the heart of Emmett. Squint a little and you can easily picture Norman Rockwell framing an image with a backdrop of the turn-of-the-century brick buildings that line both sides.

In the middle of all this is a nondescript building painted gray with wood trim and a canopy that overhangs two sets of doors. There are no storefront windows. In their place are two showcases just large enough to hold a standard-issue movie poster. It's the only hint that the faade hides Emmett's historic Frontier Cinema.

"This is actually a working theater," says owner Roy Dransfield.

Backstage, he points out the building dates to 1916, when it was a regional stage for all sorts of entertainment. One week it might have been a vaudeville act. Another, it might have been a Charlie Chaplin silent feature.

Dransfield is justly proud of Emmett's crown jewel and has lovingly cared for the theater since buying it with his wife ten years ago.

In the early days, it was a lark for the couple. But with soaring prices for staples like popcorn oil and candy, arguably the bread-and-butter for any movie theater, he saw his profit margins shrink.

Tubs of popcorn oil that cost $35 just four years ago now command $90.

And it's still a delicate balance as he tries to schedule newish movie releases while also keeping down ticket prices.

He's proud to say, though, that admission to the Frontier has been $4 for adults since he opened.

"He's giving it away," according to Dave Beck, who runs a coffee shop across the street.

But how long Roy can keep that up is the big question. A bigger one, though, already has been put to rest: how to handle the transition from film projection to digital.

Several years ago, Dransfield began to feel the winds of change at his back. Reports from other parts of the country hinted that movie film would soon be phased out by manufacturers because the Hollywood studios had decided to begin producing features exclusively on digital video equipment.

"It definitely wasn't the theater's call," he says, with a hint of nostalgia. "It was the industry's call to switch over to digital."

The prospect of buying a very expensive digital projection system kept him awake nights.

For many in the exhibition business, it has been a sea change right up there with talkies supplanting silent pictures, or color movies replacing the black-and-whites.

And definitely not a sublime adventure on the order of Dorothy walking through her sepia-toned front door into the candy-colored paradise of Oz. This was survival, and Dransfield was scared.

When word got out that the Frontier might be forced to close--again--the community rallied and raised money to off-set at least part of the cost of a new, state-of-the-art computerized projector.

"Well over $15,000 was raised the last 12 months for the digital projector upgrade, even children putting in change," he says with a satisfied smile.

The new toy fairly hums in the projection booth--a square metallic box with two plastic lights sitting on top. When everything is working according to plan, the lights glow green.

But on our visit, the lights are glowing red and Roy is in panic mode.

Luckily, his tech guy, Shane, is downstairs with his relatives, ready for a showing of "Smurfs 2." Shane bounds up to the second floor, to the small room at the rear of the balcony.

He manipulates the motherboard, makes a few changes with a computer mouse and--voila!--the lights turn from bright red to bright green and the night is saved.

The early stories about the digital revolution in the movie business suggested theater owners like Roy would be using DVD's inserted into something a little larger than a home video player.

While that's not far from the truth, the newly-equipped theaters like the Frontier rely on something that looks like what it is: a hard drive. More importantly, it contains security codes designed to thwart video piracy.

Dransfield gets his in a box not much larger than what shoes come in. It's a far cry from years ago when movies would arrive in a set of heavy-duty canisters. They required storage and shipping, costs that have all but disappeared under the new protocol.

But Roy's nostalgic for the old film projector. So, for now, he keeps it in pieces in a storage locker about a five-minute walk from the theater. About the only parts that hint at their utility are the huge steel platters that held the unspooling film reels. They sit against one wall.

And he has a trio of theater seats that have seen better days. It's a bit of Emmett history he's reluctant to part with.

Since there might come a time when it's again feasible to run movies on film, provided they can be obtained at a reasonable cost, the projector pieces will continue gathering dust.

Back at the theater, the lobby is crowded with moviegoers buying tickets and popcorn, including Karisa Mettler, one grateful mom.

"You don't have to go over the hill," she says, cradling one her kids. "You don't have to make it a four-hour adventure."

With the popcorn machine spitting out fluffy kernels, and the aroma of butter wafting in the lobby, life this night in Emmett is good.

We head across the street to the coffee house that, unusual for a small town, is open until 10 p.m. Roy and owner Beck have a business arrangement: Roy can use the back room to store patrons' backpacks. And he can use the caf as a quiet oasis for doing paperwork or talking with reporters. Beck gets the post-movie crowd.

In the middle of our conversation, Roy makes a startling admission: he's not much of a movie buff. When pressed to name a favorite movie, he draws a blank.

"I really can't think of a single one."

But it's clear from his passion that he's in love with the idea of running a movie theater in a small town, especially a theater thriving in a brave new world without film or the maddening little holes called sprockets that often caused the old projectors to jam.

In fact, he's sold on the new hi-tech heart beating inside the Frontier.

"It really makes things come to life," he says, beaming with pride. "It's like magic."

Roy Dransfield knows what he's doing for the people of Emmett in giving them a place to gather. And it's a safe enough environment that parents here think nothing of letting their kids walk un-chaperoned to the theater on Main Street.

It's no stretch to say that the man behind the curtain at the Frontier Cinema is a kind of modern-day Wizard of Oz.

Because he knows the value of having a heart, a brain and, most of all, courage.