Shrinking audiences, digital movies threaten old-time theater

ARLINGTON, Wash. - It's been around since 1939 - but the future of a Snohomish County movie theater is looking bleak, especially if the movie industry decides to say goodbye to film ... and go all-digital.

Norma Pappas, owner of the Olympic Theatre, starts off her routine the same way every day. On Sunday, she loads the 35-millimeter film of "The Avengers" for the 1 o'clock matinee.

"I think I do it in my sleep sometimes," Pappas says, laughing.

The theater opened in 1939, and Norma took it over in the 1970s. She can remember unforgettable moments with a classic movie release.

"I know way back in the past, 'E.T.' was an extremely popular movie. We did very well with that," she says.

But attendance in the 300-seat theater has dwindled over the years.

"It's nice to see a lot of people come and enjoy a show, but that doesn't happen anymore. There's just too many other options for people," Pappas says.

And someday soon, movie companies might get rid of releasing movies on film - by going digital. If it happens, it's a $65,000 to $100,000 change Pappas says she can't afford.

Nico Noga, who enjoys watching movies at the Olympic Theatre, says it might be time for customers to help out.

"Now it's time for us to step up again as patrons to do something to help out, so that we can continue to enjoy this great service, great people, great prices," Noga says.

For now, Pappas is keeping things the way they are, with $4 matinees.

"I just want to keep it affordable for families," she says.

She offers freshly popped popcorn for each movie, from a vintage machine. And each movie starts in the traditional way - when the curtain opens.

"It's like it's going to open to a play. Instead, it opens to a movie," says one patron, Patrick.

Pappas says she's not asking for any kind of handout. She says she just wants to be here for the customers, and she'll continue to come in every single day, working hard, making sure the doors stay open.

She also hopes movie companies will listen up and continue to release some movies on film - so theaters like hers can afford to stay open.

In the meantime, some loyal customers have created a "Save the Olympic Theatre" page on Facebook.