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Technology challenges, but now could save, Northland movie theater

When the Comet Theater opened its doors in Cook nearly 75 years ago, "Gone with the Wind" was among its early movie offerings. Now the winds of change in the theater industry are threatening the future of the Comet, a rare independent, small-town...

Comet Theater
The Comet Theater in Cook, seen here last summer, has been operating since 1939. Its owners have launched an online pledge drive in an effort to make the expensive switch from film to digital projection equipment. (News Tribune file photo)

When the Comet Theater opened its doors in Cook nearly 75 years ago, "Gone with the Wind" was among its early movie offerings.

Now the winds of change in the theater industry are threatening the future of the Comet, a rare independent, small-town, single-screen survivor in a world of multiplexes. One immediate concern is the theater's film projection system, something that's become increasingly obsolete as studios focus on distributing digital copies of movies.

"It's gotten harder and harder over the years as film is being phased out," said Carol Carlson, owner of the Comet since 2000. "It's a whole different ballgame now. ...

"This last year has been impossible. They just make so many fewer prints of films."

Fewer film prints mean longer waits to get first-run movies -- if they're available at all. The cost to acquire and install digital projection equipment is about $80,000, Carlson said. And with the Comet's movie business just breaking even financially, Carlson said a loan is out of the question.


So she's putting the future of the theater in the hands of its fans -- year-round residents and summer tourists alike in the town of 600 near Lake Vermilion.

She has launched an online Kickstarter campaign to raise the money by May 15. If successful, the Comet will keep showing first-run movies. If not, Carlson will focus on the Comet's coffee shop, gift store and clothing boutique -- profitable parts of the operation that have helped keep the theater afloat -- while using the theater just for occasional plays, concerts and other arts events.

"I was just going to let (the first-run movies) go, but people said, 'You cannot let it go, Carol,' " Carlson said.

"It's really important. It's not like the Cities or Duluth where you have 100 places to go. (In Cook) there's one place, and it's ours. The Comet is really important for that. ... If you're not into (bars), what are you going to do? It adds a lot to the community."

Learning experience

The Comet opened in its present location on River Street in Cook in 1939, and has been showing movies ever since. Carlson said that makes it the longest continuously operating movie theater in Minnesota.

Sue and Ray Wolfe of Cook went on their first date at the Comet, back in 1962. They both were visitors to Lake Vermilion, and watched "Three Coins in the Fountain," Sue recalled. The theater staff brought fresh popcorn to them at their seats during the show.

Now married 49 years, the Wolfes -- who moved to the Cook area in 1981 -- "still go to the Comet Theater and eat their good popcorn."


Carlson and her husband, John Metsa, entered the picture in 2000 when they bought the theater. Each grew up on the Iron Range; Carlson later spent 18 years in New York City before moving back to northern Minnesota. They wanted to make their new home in the Lake Vermilion area.

"We saw it was for sale," Carlson said. "I walked in and I thought it was a very romantic idea, to have a movie theater. 'Gosh, what could I do with it?' "

Metsa is a school principal, currently at North Woods School, so Carlson has taken the lead in operating the business, adding the coffee, gift and clothing shops over the years and getting a crash course in how to run a theater.

"The first year I came, I was really into foreign films, but no one came to them," Carlson recalled with a laugh. "Then you smarten up, and learn what the kids are going to want."

It's a balance, she said -- more blockbusters in the summer, when families on vacation may be looking for something to do on a rainy day. Cut back the hours in the fall when kids are in school. In the winter, provide some more diverse offerings, focusing on Academy Award nominees in the weeks leading up to that event.

Carlson would like to show more small, independent films -- but many are available in digital form only. And even big-studio films can be tough to get; Carlson waited 2½ months to get a print of "Lincoln."

So why not just leave the movie business and its hassles?

It's a 30-mile drive to the next-closest theater -- and it's likely that no other theater in the state has the ambience of the Comet, with the clothing and gift shops spilling into the 117-seat cinema.


"You walk into the theater and it's warm and cozy and packed full of beautiful things," Carlson said.

And while DVDs and Internet streaming services have made it ever easier to watch movies at home, Carlson said that's just not the same as going to a theater -- the Comet or any other.

"You just have to get out of the house every once in a while," she said. "It's not just people watching a movie. It's a family getting out to do something."

Nationwide issue

The Comet is far from alone in facing the cost of converting to digital.

Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners, said that as of last week, 3,918 out of 5,704 theaters nationwide, or about 69 percent, have made the switch to digital. When counting by screens -- some theaters have more than one screen, of course -- it's 33,618 out of 39,838 that have made the switch, or about 84 percent.

Marcus movie theaters in Duluth and Hermantown converted to digital cinema systems in 2011.

But for small theaters, it can be a struggle.

The Tacora in Aurora stopped showing movies a few years back, owner Lou Housey said, in large part because of the cost of converting to digital and the increasing costs of obtaining any movies from distributors. The Tacora remains open, but only to serve food.

In southern Minnesota, the JEM Theater in Harmony launched a successful community effort in 2011 that raised more than $40,000 to help it make the digital transition.

Carlson said she was hesitant to place the full burden of her fundraising request on the residents of Cook, because they already donate generously to other local causes. She said the online effort is a good way to reach tourists and summer residents who make up a big part of the theater's audience.

"As much as the Cook people want it, there are only so many people" in town, Carlson said. "I figured, I'm going to put it out (online). ... It's up to everybody, and out of my hands."

As of midday Sunday, the pledge campaign -- which opened Friday -- had passed $4,400, with more than 40 backers.

Sue Wolfe said she hopes to see the Comet keep serving up movies and fresh popcorn well into the future.

"It's important to the town that we get together to support each other," she said, "not only in hardship but also in positive things."

What is Kickstarter?

Kickstarter is an online, all-or-nothing fundraising platform. Businesses, artists and other groups or individuals ask for a specific amount of money to complete a project, and offer incentives to those who pledge their support. After a designated period of time, if the artists raise the money, they get to keep it. If they don't meet the goal, they don't get the money and the backers don't pay.

Why digital?

Movie studios are switching to digital in large part because it costs less, and provides better picture quality.

More information online

Comet Theater:

Comet Theater's Kickstarter page:

Inside Comet Theater
The interior of the Comet Theater in Cook is filled with knickknacks and gift shop items. "It's warm and cozy and packed full of beautiful things," owner Carol Carson said. (Photo courtesy Carol Carlson)

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