Uncertain future for Monte Rio's one-screen movie theater

  • The Rio theater in Monte Rio, Friday, December 28, 2012. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

The Rio, that funky little mural-covered movie theater in the heart of Monte Rio, limped its way through 2012.

But the chances it will survive 2013 seem as remote as its location on banks of the Russian River just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Since 1950, the 240-seat theater in a World War II surplus Quonset hut has made it through all manner of calamities, from foreclosures to floods.

But the cost of switching from 35mm film to new digital projection equipment is proving too steep for owners Suzi and Don Schaffert, who have run the theater since 1993 and are ready to retire.

Without the $55,000 equipment upgrade, the number of first-run movies they can show is quickly dwindling, a dilemma that has the potential to shutter thousands of small movies theaters across the nation.

"Projectionists are history," lamented Don Schaffert. "We're done. We're dinosaurs."

This past weekend, the theater showed "Rise of the Guardians," an animated feature about Jack Frost. The film was perhaps fitting for a theater whose interior temperature hovered around 40 degrees. To save money, the Schafferts no longer use the propane heater, and instead hand out blankets to movie-goers.

The film was released Nov. 21, but Suzi Schaffert couldn't get a 35mm copy delivered before the end of December because studios are phasing them out in favor of digital files.

"It's getting harder and harder to get films," she said last week. "I'm forced to play films that are two to three months old."

Even though the theater is "way out here in the boonies," people who want to see a new movie will still drive to Santa Rosa or Sebastopol instead of waiting months, she said.

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