Digital era threatens drive-ins

Through 80 summers, drive-in theaters have managed to remain a part of the American fabric, surviving technological advances and changing tastes that put thousands out of business. Now the industry says a good chunk of the 350 or so 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 35 mm film prints, and the switch to an eventually all-digital distribution system is pushing the outdoor theaters to make the expensive 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. Paying for the switch would suck up most owners’ profits for years to come.

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,” says Walt Effinger, whose Skyvue Drive-In in the central Ohio town of Lancaster has been showing 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 worked at the Skyvue off and on for 30 years before he and his wife, Cathie, bought it two decades ago. They converted to digital last year, the first of the state’s 29 drive-ins to do so. Because the films now come on a device the size of a portable hard drive and are downloaded to his projector, it’s less hassle for him on movie nights and gives viewers a stunningly brighter, clearer image.

Skyway Drive-in on North Leavitt Road in Warren Township has a similar story.

Brian DeCiancio of Howland purchased the two-screen operation in 2002 and runs it along with his wife, Debbie, and daughter, Paige. He said the switch to digital was a no-brainer.

“There wasn’t much of a choice,” he said of the operation that opened its doors in 1949. “If you weren’t digital, you were out of business, indoor or outdoor. We were the first drive-in to convert to digital projectors in northeast Ohio.”

DeCiancio listed among the advantages of the new format its better picture quality, sound and that it allows them to show a cartoon before the features.

The digital transformation has been under way in the film industry for more than a decade because of the better picture and sound quality and the ease of delivery – no more huge reels of film. The time frame isn’t clear, but production companies are already phasing out traditional 35 mm film, and it’s expected to disappear completely over the next few years.

“We know fewer and fewer prints are being struck,” says D. Edward Vogel, who runs the historic 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 cost of conversion over time, Vogel says, but because most drive-ins are small, family-run businesses, it’s hard for many to find the money, period. And the reimbursement doesn’t cover the tens of thousands of dollars more that many will have to spend renovating projection rooms to create the climate-controlled conditions needed for the high-tech equipment.

It was a sentiment echoed by DeCiancio.

“With the speculation of the cost of conversion, there’s a good chance 30 percent will close before next season, so 80-100 may not reopen,” he said. “Digital is ungodly expensive. $75,000 for the top of the line. And most theaters have to do things with the projection booth for climate control. We had to upgrade our projection booth.”

There is a plus side beyond mere existence, though. DeCiancio said the new format allows them more options in the future.

He said Skyway is “looking to do more things in the future because we can now. It was more expensive when we had film. Digital is more flexible and provides more options. It’s also smoother. There’s no issues now. No film breakage or delays here and there.”

The number of drive-ins peaked at more than 4,000 in the late 1950s. Now there are 357.

Associated Press writer Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.