Movie theaters around the country have been converting from 35mm film to digital projection systems over the past five years. Moviegoers haven’t seemed to notice, and aside from the true aficionados, most probably never will.

Unless the local movie theater closes.

The problem with the digitization of film isn’t that people are staying home and watching movies on their computers. Maybe they are, but they’re also coming out to movie theaters in record numbers.

“The fact that people still want to go to a movie theater and sit with other people … They have every right to sit at home and wait, but they don’t want to wait. They want to go today,” said Mike Hurley, owner of the Colonial Theatre in Belfast.

The thing that may ultimately force theaters to close is the rush by the film industry toward a system of exclusively digital movie distribution and the elimination of 35mm film. The change is happening fast, and small theaters that don’t have the money to replace their old projectors with new digital models, according to Hurley and others, may be out of luck.

Two-thirds of the country’s 40,000 movie screens are already showing films on digital projection systems, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. But the same group has predicted that at the current rate of change, 1,000 theaters — mostly the small, independent ones — won’t make the transition.

Speaking in 2011, Association President John Fithian described the situation in blunt terms.

“If you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to go out of business,” he said.

Hurley said he plans to bite the bullet and is currently in negotiations with several vendors to buy the projectors and ancillary equipment necessary to show digital films at the Colonial. But only because he can.

And just barely.

In terms of size and profitability, he said, the Colonial is right on the cusp between the theaters that can afford the conversion — the suburban megaplexes and metropolitan theaters that show first run movies — and those in slightly smaller markets than Belfast that would literally be unable to recoup their investment.

“We’re in one of the hottest little cities on the coast of Maine,” he said.

In Houlton, where Hurley also owns a theater, it’s a totally different story and Hurley admitted he’s still trying to decide what to do there. The theater serves a much smaller population than Belfast and has far fewer tourists.

“And there’s many, many, like that,” he said.

The rollout of digital cinema arguably kicked off in 2005, when the Digital Cinema Initiative, a consortium of seven major Hollywood studios, released its specification standard for a consistent encoding system to be used in digitally distributed films.

Recently, Twentieth Century Fox said it would cease producing 35mm prints at the end of 2012. Projections from the National Association of Theater Owners put the end of film at 2013. Hurley said it’s more of a moving target. While there may not be a Y2K-like moment when film ceases to exist, the change, whenever it becomes unavoidable, will probably be sooner than many theater owners would like — and Hurley said he’s already feeling the pinch.

Traditionally, movie companies print a certain number of copies of a film, often sending out multiple copies to larger theater complexes. Hurley and other small theater owners typically wait until the multiplex that was showing the film on four screens scales back to two. At that point, some prints become available — and no longer hot off the presses — affordable.

The system benefited the small theaters that couldn’t afford first runs, and the additional small market screenings allowed film companies to effectively amortize the high cost of the 35mm print.

But as some of the large theaters have converted to digital, competition for the smaller number of available prints has increased in the second-run market.

Not all the large cinemas have switched over.

With 10 screens and a parent company operating nearly a dozen theaters between Maine and Florida, Flagship Cinemas in Thomaston would be a likely candidate for early adoption of digital projection, but according to a manager the multiplex is still screening 35mm prints.

“We don’t know anything. It’s all hush, hush,” she said.

Film companies have proposed a “virtual print fee” system to help theaters finance the new equipment. Those that invest in DCI-compliant systems can recoup a share of the cost of the equipment each time they show a major studio film.

Hurley said the funding comes via the significant savings the film companies will see by replacing $2,000 film prints with $100 hard drives, which could presumably be reused.

The conversion to digital cinema has plenty of near precedents. Sound engineers and still photographers have logged volumes of disputes over the relative merits of traditional analog media and their digital replacements, and usually the longer the conversation goes on, the harder it becomes to judge the final product as having come from one or the other.

On the front end, the digital revolution has democratized high-fidelity creative tools, and Hurley is quick to point out the boon digital cameras have been to filmmakers. In his opinion, there are more good films being made today than at any point in the history of the medium.

Big-budget films, though often still shot on 35mm film, are invariably digitized for editing. The finished files are then converted back to film for movie theaters.

For anyone still holding notions of analog or digital purity, a recent screening at the Colonial would have been an eye-opener.

As part of the theater’s 100th anniversary celebration, Hurley and company have been running a loose retrospective of the last century of film. On the big screen were Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, projected from a DVD by way of a suitcase-sized video projector mounted in the projection booth. On the platter of the theater’s 35mm projector was a film print of “The Artist,” a silent black-and-white film that came out last year. In the theater where the classic silent films played, a pianist provided live accompaniment on a digital piano.

In many ways, theaters have been the holdouts in the cinema’s slow march into the digital domain.

The resolution of digital projectors continues to improve dramatically, which bodes well for the future of digital cinema, but also presents a big problem for theater owners.

Hurley recalled attending a conference for industry professionals recently that included a talk about digital projectors. One of the tech-savvy presenters ended a conversation about then state-of-the-art 2K projectors with the kind of tease that would be familiar to enthusiasts of any computer-based technology.

“Wait until you see the 4K,” he said.

Or 8K…

Other venerable industries have been forced onto the hamster wheel of Moore’s Law, in which computer speeds double every 18 months, and now it was the movie theaters’ turn.

According to Hurley, the news was too much for one of his peers who stood up and pointed an accusing finger at the men on stage. “You guys are freaking me the [expletive] out!” he said.

Hurley felt the same way.

Two of the film projectors in use at the Colonial today were installed in the 1950s and a third was added when the “Dreamland” theater was added in the mid-’90s. They work as well now as they ever did, and Hurley said the design is simple enough that — ignoring for a minute the impending conversion to digital — he couldn’t imagine when any of them would need to be replaced outright.

Until recently a good used film projector would have cost around $5,000. Lately, Hurley said, they’re more likely to end up in dumpsters than among used equipment listings.

Hurley is still in negotiations with several dealers of digital video projectors, but said it will probably cost $180,000 for the three machines he will need.

As a one-time expense, he said, it’s almost enough to put the theater out of business. But what’s more mind-boggling for theater owners like Hurley is that the projectors could be outdated within a few years — a century-old system now subject to the annual, breathless unveilings of so many IT guys.

Alan Sanborn, one of the founders of Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, described the conversion as going from the film industry to the computer industry.

“This is the biggest change in the film industry since sound came in in 1927,” he said. Sound was around before then, but that’s when “The Jazz Singer” was released and “talkies” hit the mass market.

That conversion happened on the eve of the Great Depression, and the timing probably contributed to the demise of 4,000 small theaters around the country, which folded because they couldn’t afford to wire for sound.

Where the Colonial makes ends meet by running a mix of blockbusters and independent films, Railroad Square floats a more art-house oriented program by operating as a nonprofit, offering memberships and hosting special programs to offset expenses.

In this way, Railroad Square is more typical of small art house and revival theaters around the country, which have drifted toward nonprofit funding mechanisms.

The Alamo in Bucksport, The Grand in Ellsworth and Unity Centre for the Performing Arts are all nonprofit operations. The Strand in Rockland is a private operation but has historically been underwritten. The venue also hosts music concerts, lectures and simulcasts of operas and sports events.

Being a nonprofit doesn’t exempt theater operators like Sanborn from the expensive inevitability of converting to digital, though the Railroad Square Cinema co-manager anticipated that the distributors of off-the-beaten-path titles would take longer to switch over to digital distribution.

Under the right circumstances, this could amount to a reprieve for small, art house theaters, but Sanborn said the more likely outcome for Railroad Square is that the theater will need to have both digital and film projectors on hand to accommodate a mix of films.

Asked if the management has made plans for a conversion to digital, Sanborn laughed in a way that suggested he was probably also rolling his eyes. At this point, he said, the theater has no clear plans.

“Some people are renting the equipment because they’re not sure if five years down the road the equipment might be inferior or obsolete.”

Like the Colonial, the projectors at Railroad Square have been in use for decades. The theater bought its 35mm projectors used in 1981 and they survived a fire in 1994. Sanborn doubted the digital models could make that claim.

The conversion also comes with a host of unknowns about day-to-day operations. If a 35mm print broke, for example, it could most likely be spliced on site. But what would glitches in a digital system look like, who would service the machines and how long would it take?

Scratched prints and other mechanical glitches may be a thing of the past, and while digital projectors will likely exceed the resolution of film in the future, the irony of glowing reviews of current models that tout “near 35mm quality” is not lost on theater owners.

“And the kicker is this isn’t going to raise attendance one iota,” Sanborn said. “People are not going to pay to start seeing these art house films we’ve been showing for 30 years because [now] they’re in digital.”

Sanborn was on the other side of the equation when the theater got rid of its 16mm projectors in 1981 and started showing 35mm prints. As a cinema enthusiast, he recalled his own excitement about the upgrade, and subsequent disappointment when audience members seemed not to notice the difference.

For Hurley, who has been trying to spread the word about the perils that the streamlined conversion to digital poses to theater owners, the shuttering of small rural movie houses would amount to a “tragedy.”

He searched for another word. “Blasphemy,” he said.

“They’re a key part of human interaction through popular culture,” he said. “How often is there a movie that has [as part of the setting of the film] a movie theater in a small town?”

For whatever reason, Hurley said, movie theaters attract people to towns and trips to the movies rub off on other businesses like restaurants. And if being an economic driver and a nexus for shared cultural experiences isn’t enough, Hurley has other compelling reasons why movie theaters should stay in business.

“Would you watch ‘Schindler’s List’ on a cell phone?” he said. “What about ‘Gone with the Wind’?”