Digital era threatens drive-ins
Through 80 summers, drive-in theaters have managed to remain a part of the American fabric, despite technological advances and changing tastes.
In the late 1950s, there were more than 4,000 nationwide. Now, the industry says, a good chunk of the 357 drive-ins left could be forced to turn out the lights because they can't afford to adapt to the digital age.
Movie studios are phasing out 35mm film prints, and the switch is pushing outdoor theaters to make the change to digital projectors. The $70,000-plus investment required per screen is significant, especially for what is in most places a summertime business kept alive by mom-and-pop operators.
The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association figures 50 to 60 theaters have already converted. At least one operator decided to close instead of switch, but it's not clear how many more might bite the dust.
"Everyone knows eventually that you'll be digital or you'll close your doors," said Walt Effinger, whose Skyvue Drive-In in Lancaster, Ohio, has shown movies on an 80-foot screen since 1948. "Some will. If you're not doing enough business to justify the expense, you're just going to have to close up."
Effinger and his wife, Cathie, converted to digital last year, the first of Ohio's 29 drive-ins to do so. Because films now come on devices the size of portable hard drives and are downloaded to projectors, it's less hassle on movie nights and gives viewers a brighter, clearer image.
The digital transformation has been underway for more than a decade because of the better picture and sound quality. The time frame isn't clear, but movie-production companies are already phasing out traditional 35mm film.
"We know fewer and fewer prints are being struck," said D. Edward Vogel, who runs Bengies Drive-In in Baltimore and is spokesman for the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
An industry incentive program will reimburse theater owners 80 percent of the conversion costs over time, Vogel said, but because most drive-ins are small businesses, it's hard to find the money, period. And the reimbursement doesn't cover the tens of thousands more many will spend to renovate projection rooms for needed climate control.
Darci and Bill Wemple own two drive-ins in New York state and hope an online competition will help with the $225,000 to $250,000 it will cost to switch their three screens.
American Honda Motor Co. will pay the costs of the top five vote-getters.
"To make this kind of conversion with three screens is like trying to buy another drive-in all over again," Darci Wemple said.