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Digital era threatens drive-ins

Published: Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Maddie Essig, left, age 10, watches a movie with her sister, Claire, age 6, from the tailgate of their parents' car at Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Middle River, Md. The latest threat to the existence of drive-in theaters is the film industry's conversion from 35 mm film to digital prints, and the expense involved in converting projectors to the digital age.

LANCASTER, Ohio – 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 already have 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 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.”

The digital transformation has been underway 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 already are phasing out traditional 35 mm film, and it’s expected to disappear completely over the next few years.

An industry incentive program will reimburse theater owners 80 percent of the cost of conversion over time, Vogel said, 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.

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