Go digital or go dark for iconic cinema

The Labia Theatre has never been on the cutting edge. And to a certain extent, with its interior from a bygone era, the small cinema’s owner would argue that that is its charm.

SAVING GRACE: Labia Theatre owner Ludi Kraus with the cinema's oldest projector, which has been replaced by a new digital device. The cinema has turned to crowd-funding to pay for the new technology and keep the lights on. Credit: David Ritchie

CAPE Town’s Labia Theatre on Orange Street has never been on the cutting edge. And to a certain extent, with its interior from a bygone era, the small cinema’s owner would argue that that is its charm.

But faced with a tough decision, going under or going digital – the choice was obvious for owner Ludi Kraus.

“It’s going to blow people’s minds,” he laughed, pointing to the theatre’s new projector, a whirring tower of lights that will eventually cost more than R500 000.

“This is a huge leap for us, we have never owned anything this new.”

In the projection booth of one of the cinema’s four theatres, it sits surrounded by empty reels, old lamps and even older wallpaper.

Its predecessor, an old film projector with more than 50 years of service, will soon be unplugged and mounted downstairs as a monument to the cinema’s history.

It’s a sad moment for Kraus.

Until now, the owner has always been a purist. He has favoured the click and flicker of heavy reels of film over the clinical whir of a digital projector.

“There’s a lot to be said for that feeling of nostalgia, and I know some of our customers will miss it.”

But the reality was that keeping the cinematic relic running was becoming a headache.

With almost all cinemas going digital, the number of distributors printing movies on film were drying up. And the few that did go that route, charged a massive premium for the honour – compounded by the fees to ship the giant reels to South Africa.

“We also started running out of parts. If the lamp on our projector goes out, that’s it.

“Nobody makes those parts anymore, we won’t find them anywhere.”

The Labia’s future was precariously balanced on the back of a dying projector. It was a risk no one was willing to take.

“It really was a case of go digital or go dark.”

There was one problem: they could not afford the upgrade.

The answer lay with crowd-sourcing.

Kraus teamed up with Thundafund, a local startup that is a local version of the incredibly successful Kickstarter site in the US and which has funded countless projects by calling the public to invest their money.

From tomorrow, the company is hoping cinema buffs and the Labia’s patrons will help pay off the money spent on the three new digital projects he has bought and rented.

Additionally, he is hoping to rejuvenate the theatre, which in his recent memory – he took over the theatre 25 years ago – has never had a makeover since it was converted into a theatre in 1949.

Kraus is aiming to raise R150 000 through crowd-funding.

“We will still keep the old spirit of the place intact. We just want to improve what we can and make sure we are still here,” he said.

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