Drive-in Movie Theaters Struggle to Go Digital

Aug 30, 2013

Over the last few years, due to pressure from the film industry, more and more movie theaters have been converting their projection method from 35 millimeter film to digital. While many small and independent theaters have been struggling to adapt, drive-in theaters in particular are at a crucial moment in this nationwide transition. Community Voices Producer Lauren Shows takes us to Dayton's Dixie Twin Drive-In to find out why.

Between row after row of white poles, cars and trucks are lined up, ready for tonight's first feature. Movie-goers lounge on blankets and in lawn chairs. In the bed of one truck, Bert Whitaker has just inflated an air mattress. He says he comes to the drive-in every few weeks.

“It's just an amazing experience to be laying, look up and see the stars move around, moon moving from one place to the other and the occasional meteor, and enjoy a perhaps half-baked, slightly good movie,” he says.

Helping Bert with the mattress is his friend, Mary Galloway, another frequent visitor to the Dixie Twin, where folks can see two movies for about two thirds the price of a single indoor theater ticket. The way Mary sees it, part of the appeal of a trip to the drive-in is getting the most bang for the old proverbial buck. “You get to go out and have a meal, you get your movies, you get an abbreviated camping trip without getting stinky, so that's a plus,” she says.

When the Dixie Twin opened in 1957 - which was just about at the peak of the popularity of drive-ins - there were nearly 5,000 of them around the U.S. Now there are just over 350 left, with Ohio operating 28 of these. The Dixie Twin is one of four drive-ins in the Miami Valley. The others are located in Fairborn, Springfield and Wilmington, and these are all owned by local company Chakeres Theaters, Inc.

According to Bert, who has visited all of the area drive-ins, one of the best parts of the experience is checking out the projection booth, which, in the Dixie Twin's case, contains much of the same equipment it had when it opened 56 years ago.

“If you haven't seen one of the projection booths with all the equipment, you probably should,” Bert says, “Just walk up while they're running it and just knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, can I look at how this works?’ You'll flip!”

If the rumors circulating around the movie industry hold water, folks looking to flip had better do so fast. The scuttlebutt within the industry is that, by the end of the year, movie companies will stop printing new films on 35mm altogether, and will only distribute them in digital format. Bill Nelson, the Dixie Twin's General Manager, has been hearing these rumors for a while.

“The studios, for years now, have been trying to convert everybody to digital because it's much cheaper for them to produce a movie on a hard drive than it is to strike a film print. And they've always been threatening that, ‘very soon we're going to be cutting off 35 mm film, so you need to hurry up and do this.’ They won't give you an exact deadline,” Bill says.

While there isn't a specific universal deadline, most film studios have essentially given notice that, after this year, they'll no longer release new films on 35mm. Bill says that the cost of upgrading to digital for small theaters isn't exactly chump change, “A digital projector right now is running anywhere from $75,000 to $85,000.”

The Dixie Twin's two screens means they’ll need two of these projectors. Bill also says the Dixie Twin would need to renovate its projection booth, which isn't air conditioned, since digital projectors need climate control

Unlike their indoor counterparts, who operate year round, the movie season for drive-ins doesn't begin until spring, and will end when the good weather does. Most drive-ins will need to decide soon whether to upgrade, or to take their chances that 35mm will still be around next year. Some theaters have already closed, knowing they couldn't make the investment. Philip Chakeres, the CEO of Chakeres Theaters Inc., stated via email this week that the company still intends to open all its area drive-ins for the 2014 season. The drive-ins will continue to show movies on 35mm film, while the company explores its digital options.

For the Dixie Twin, it's not curtains just yet. This August, Honda launched Project Drive-In, a contest that seeks to help drive-ins by assisting some of them with the digital conversion. Drive-in supporters can log on to projectdrivein.com and vote for their favorite drive-in, once a day via the website, and once a day via text message. The top five theaters with the most votes will receive digital upgrades to their projectors. The Dixie Twin is the only drive-in in the Miami Valley participating in the contest, and winning could spell greater security for its future.

But what happens if they don't win?

“I'm optimistic that we're going to be able to make the numbers work,” Bill Nelson says, “At the end of the season, me and the owner are going to sit down and crunch numbers. I can say that we have a very loyal customer base and it's been a very good season so far for us, so we're hoping that we're going to be able to make it work.”

Back at the Dixie Twin, Bert and Mary say they've heard about the drive-in's plight. Bert said he'd take it pretty hard if the Dixie Twin wasn't around in the future.

“I think summers would be a lot more lame,” he says.

Both he and Mary think that drive-ins aren't just a source of entertainment, they're an important piece of cultural identity.

Mary says, “It's good to have something that brings the community out, and we can see each other's faces and enjoy something together.”

“If anybody has not had the drive in experience,” Bert says, “I think you're missing a great part of what the American experience is all about.”