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McHenry Outdoor's drive to stay alive

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McHENRY – A fundraising effort kicking off Oct. 5 will decide the future of a McHenry County staple.

The McHenry Outdoor Theater is looking to raise $130,000 to make a switch to equipment that will support a digital movie format instead of its current 35 mm set-up.

"Everything is going to go digital," said owner Scott Dehn. "The small independent theaters, you have to make the decision whether you can and should go digital or if you're going to go out of business, basically."

For small-theater owners like Dehn, the problem is the sudden switch from 35 mm film, an industry standard since about 1910, to digital – a format that's cheaper for both studios and distributors, and doesn't scratch as traditional film will. The switch means theater owners must buy new projection equipment, computers and a sound system.

Film studio 20th Century Fox has said it will phase out 35 mm film altogether by the end of 2013, and other production companies are expected to follow suit. Traditional film is expected to vanish over the next few years, despite the upcoming U.S. release of "The Master," which was shot with the rare but much higher definition 70 mm film.

Big chains can afford the digital transition, which can be cheaper when buying in bulk for multiscreen theaters. But those who own smaller theaters with one or two screens typically face a decision to take out a loan, close down altogether, or seek help through a fundraising effort.

McHenry Outdoor will seek funding through a campaign on the fundraising website Kickstarter. Through Kickstarter, projects must meet their full fundraising goals or receive none of the money pledged to them through the site.

This week, the historic Catlow Theater in Barrington successfully completed its 60 days on the Kickstarter site, with the same goal of funding a switch to digital. Catlow raised $175,395 in all, far exceeding its $100,000 goal.

Dehn, who has turned to Catlow management for guidance in setting up his own fundraising efforts, has made his Kickstarter goal $130,000.

The digital equipment costs $77,000, but necessary facility upgrades to run it – like a new electric system, air conditioning, proper exhaust and ventilation – bring the cost to about $110,000. Dehn said the extra money, and any potential funds exceeding the goal, will go toward general improvements to the property and facilities.

The effort will begin with a fundraising weekend Oct. 5 and 6, when attendees will name their own admission price – an amount that will go directly toward the Kickstarter campaign.

The theater is showing a double feature of "Back to the Future" and "Jaws," starting around dusk both nights. Area band Rough Night Out will perform before the movies start Saturday night.

"There used to be over 4,000 drive-ins in the U.S., and there's less than 400 now," Dehn said. "And with this digital conversion that must happen, there's going to be even less next year. Hopefully we can be a community that stands together and keeps their drive-in."

So far, Dehn has been taken aback by the amount of support people are showing.

In his first year as the owner, Dehn said he's realized what the local theater means to the community. He's coming off a summer in which the theater benefited from good weather and a lack of rain.

He's confident it won't be the theater's last summer, and that the Kickstarter campaign – which goes live Oct. 5 in conjunction with the fundraising event – will reach its goal.

"I'm going to keep trying until we do reach it," he said. "The Outdoor has a very loyal and a very large fan base, and I know that if we turn to the customers and ask for help, I'm pretty confident that we're going to get it from them.

"They've been so loyal for 80 years and I don't think it will be a problem. But I won't stop until I reach it."

Drive to Stay Alive fundraising event:

What: McHenry Outdoor Theater will show a double feature of "Back to the Future" and "Jaws" on Oct. 5 and 6 with area band Rough Night Out performing before the movies Saturday night.Price of admission: A donation of the attendee's choiceBenefiting: An effort to replace 35 mm film equipment with digital.Where: 1510 N. Chapel Road, McHenryWhen: Shows start around dusk, Oct. 5 and 6

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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