Owners of the few hundred remaining drive-in theaters in America, including the Palace Gardens Drive-in along Indian Springs Road, White Township, are in a do-or-die situation.
And an automobile manufacturer is rallying drive-in fans in an effort to save the theaters that have become an iconic part of American car culture.
In a few months, movie studios are expected to phase out 35-mm film prints, and the switch to an eventual all-digital distribution system will force theater owners to buy digital projectors if they want to show new-release movies. Instead of new movies arriving on big reels, they’ll come on a device the size of a portable hard drive and will be downloaded to projectors.
The new format will be easier for projectionists to handle and will deliver a brighter, clearer image.
But the technological upgrade will cost an estimated $80,000 per screen.
That outlay is significant, especially for drive-in theaters that are summertime businesses, and many of which are open only on weekends. Paying for a new digital projector could eat up the profits of some drive-ins for several years to come.
According to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, there are 357 drive-ins still in operation, down from more than 4,000 in the late 1950s. About 60 of them have converted to digital projectors but the association’s leadership is not sure how many other drive-in owners will lock their gates because they can’t afford the upgrade.
“This change has been predicted for quite a few years,” Clarine Beatty, owner of the Palace Gardens Drive-In, said Friday evening while baking pizzas in the drive-in’s concession stand. She believes the movie industry’s switch to a digital-only format got pushed to a back burner in part by the slowdown in the economy the past few years.
She and her husband, Mike Hudzick, are not sure what their response will be to the industry going all-digital. But the Palace Gardens’ 2013 season will be over in a few weeks, and Beatty and Hudzick will then have some breathing room over the winter to evaluate the situation and decide if, and how, they may buy a digital projector.
The Palace Gardens still shows movies using the two carbon arc reel projectors that were installed when the drive-in opened in 1950. Beatty said the electrical system is also 1950s-vintage and will need some upgrades, and the projection room will have to be renovated to create the climate-controlled conditions needed for the digital equipment.
With those extra modifications, going digital at Palace Gardens may have a price tag closer to $100,000, Beatty predicted.
“Rain and outdoor movies don’t go together very well,” Beatty said, adding that June was an example of how wet weather can cut into a drive-in’s bottom line. One of the decisions she and her husband will have to make is if they want to put such a large investment into a business that is so dependent on the weather and only open on weekends between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend.
But there may be another solution.
Beatty said one of her regular customers last weekend told her the American Honda Motor Company is coming to the rescue and is trying to preserve drive-in theaters. Honda has started an online voting site (www.projectdrivein.com) where movie-goers can vote for their favorite drive-in. Honda will donate five digital projectors, and movie-goers’ votes will decide which theaters receive the free projectors.
Beatty hustled this past week and got her drive-in included on the website. Palace Gardens’ fans — through a strong show of support — could eliminate the financial hurdle of a digital projector and keep the drive-in from going dark.
Beatty said customers arriving at the drive-in this weekend are receiving a flier explaining how they can help and urging them to take a minute to cast a vote for Palace Gardens.
Fans can vote once per day (once each on a desktop computer and on a smartphone) through Sept. 9.
Honda is also urging visitors to the website to contribute to a save drive-ins fund, and to pledge to visit a local drive-in theater this summer.