Many movie theaters located in Iowa’s smaller towns, more than ever before, are struggling to stay in business. That’s because they caught in a technological dilemma.

Jerry Sheehy and his wife Cheryl own and operate the Bijou Theater in Mount Vernon. They recently borrowed nearly $80,000 to convert their projection system to digital technology.

“We knew we had to do something,” Sheehy says. “There are several studios now that are saying come January 2013, they’re not going to do print anymore, that’s it.” The Bijou Theater is not unlike many movie theaters in small town Iowa – it has just one screen and 100 seats.

Stuart Clark, who operates the Hardacre Theater in downtown Tipton, says the cost of converting from film to projecting digitally could put him out of business. “If I only sell $100 worth of tickets that week and I’ve paid $200 for the movie, I’m down $100 and I’ve still got all of my expenses,” Clark explained.

The looming 2013 deadline for theaters to eliminate film movies worries Tipton’s Development Director Scott Sanborn. “We’re struggling as it is in small town Iowa to keep our downtown’s vibrant and to recruit businesses and workers,” Sanborn says.

“Having a jewel like the Hardacre Theater, I think, is a plus. It’s a calling card for people who are considering coming here to visit or live. If we lose that calling card, we lose an opportunity to snag those young families.” Sanborn envisions creating a nonprofit community group for raising money, securing cultural and small town development grants, for upgrading the Hardacre.

That’s what happened in the northern Iowa community of Lake Mills – where Rachel Ringham has served on a nonprofit group operating the Mills Theater for the past 10 years. Tickets to see first-run movies at the Mills Theater are just $4 for adults and $3 for students. Ringham says, not only are they converting to digital projecting, they’re adding a second screen and 88 seats.

“One of the main (reasons) is we can get first-run movies. When you get a first-run, you have to hold it for two weeks. When you only have one screen and the same movie for two weeks, you don’t have the population to support that. Now, we’ll be able to get those new releases and have a second movie as well,” Ringham said.

Lake Mills’ population is around 2,200, but people from surrounding towns are traveling from miles away to visit the Mills Theater. A nonprofit group is also working to restore and operate the historic OperaHouse Theater in DeWitt.