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Drive-Ins Soon Face Hollywood's Digital Switch

May 30, 2013
Originally published on May 30, 2013 5:48 pm

Pull into the Bourbon Drive-In just off U.S. Highway 68 near Paris, Ky., and it's like stepping back in time. Patricia and Lanny Earlywine own the 7-acre drive-in. It's been connected to the family since the theater opened in 1956. Even the popcorn machine is original.

"To do a drive-in, it sort of gets in your blood. You have to love it," Patricia says.

At one point there were more than 4,000 drive-in movie theaters across the country. Now there are fewer than 400. As a seasonal business, drive-ins have to compete with indoor theaters, other summer activities and perhaps most of all, the weather.

"There was one year, [it] rained 13 weekends in a row. Take that one to the bank," Patricia says.

Drive-ins will soon face another challenge, when studios stop distributing movies on 35 mm film and go entirely digital. No cutoff date has been announced. Switching to digital reduces production and shipping costs, and the picture quality is better. The transition away from film started several years ago, but many drive-ins and mom and pop theaters put it off because of the high cost of new projectors.

"My goodness, the projector at the Bengies is a little over $50,000 — just the projector; forget the installation and the go-withs," says D. Edward Vogel of Bengies Drive-In near Baltimore. Vogel is also a board member of the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association. He says it's unclear how many drive-ins might close because of the change to digital.

"At the end of the day, the drive-in theater is a very hard-earned small business, usually continued by somebody with a purposeful effort to keep the drive-in in place," Vogel says.

There is help for drive-in owners. Motion picture companies are using some of the money saved from not having to ship heavy film canisters to help recoup the cost of new projectors.

But the Bourbon Drive-In doesn't have the high-speed Internet access needed to qualify for that program. So Patricia Earlywine will use a loan to pay for the switch. She wonders, though, just how durable a digital projector will be.

"Most of the people that have their equipment, they've had it for 60 years and if something breaks, they can take parts and they can fix it," she says.

Copyright 2013 WUKY-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wuky.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

For most Americans, going to the movies means driving to the local multiplex where the theater will likely have stadium seating and dependable air-conditioning. But across the country, a few hundred drive-in theaters still cater to a more nostalgic crowd.

As Brenna Angel of member station WUKY reports, the struggle to keep drive-ins open is getting tougher as movie studios make the big shift from film to digital distribution.

BRENNA ANGEL, BYLINE: Pull into the Bourbon Drive-In just off U.S. Highway 68 near Paris, Kentucky, and it's like stepping back in time.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Show after show will feature the latest hits, the biggest stars for fun-filled, pleasure-packed evenings.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Here's your cheeseburger with fry, and you already have your candy and drinks.

ANGEL: Patricia and Lanny Earlywine own the seven-acre Bourbon Drive-in. It's been connected to the family since the theater opened in 1956. Even the popcorn machine is original.

PATRICIA EARLYWINE: To do a drive-in, it sort of kind of gets in your blood. You have to love it.

ANGEL: At one point, there were more than 4,000 drive-in movie theaters across the country. Now, there are fewer than 400. As a seasonal business, drive-ins have to compete with indoor theaters, other summer activities and, perhaps most of all, the weather.

EARLYWINE: There was one year, rained 13 weekends in a row. Take that one to the bank.

ANGEL: This summer, drive-ins' face another challenge: Hollywood's digital switch.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM PROJECTOR)

ANGEL: At some point this year, studios will stop distributing movies on 35-millimeter film and go entirely digital. No cutoff date has been announced. Switching to digital reduces production and shipping costs, and the picture quality is better. The transition away from film started several years ago, but many drive-ins and mom-and-pop theaters put it off because of the high cost of new projectors.

D. EDWARD VOGEL: My goodness, the projector at the Bengies is a little over $50,000, just the projector, forget the installation and the go-withs.

ANGEL: D. Edward Vogel operates Bengies Drive-In in Baltimore and is also a board member of the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association. He says it's unclear how many drive-ins might close because of the change to digital.

VOGEL: At the end of the day, the drive-in theater is a very hard-earned small business usually continued by somebody with a purposeful effort to keep the drive-in in place.

ANGEL: There is help for drive-in owners. Motion picture companies are using some of the money saved from not having to ship heavy film canisters, to help recoup the cost of new projectors. But the Bourbon Drive-In doesn't have high-speed Internet access needed to qualify for the program. So Patricia Earlywine will use a loan to pay for it. When she does get a digital projector installed, Earlywine wonders just how durable it will be.

EARLYWINE: Most of the people that have their equipment, they've had it for 60 years. And if something breaks, they can take parts, and they can fix it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IRON MAN 3")

ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: (as Tony Stark/Iron Man) My name is Tony Stark, and I'm not afraid of you. I know you're a coward.

ANGEL: "Iron Man 3" plays on little speakers on a stand or on car radios at the drive-in. They aren't THX-certified, and the image isn't crystal clear, but that was just fine for Tracy Linville and her family. They came to the drive-in ready to curl up in the bed of their pick-up truck with blankets and sleeping bags.

TRACY LINVILLE: If it's not raining and it's not cold, just being out under the stars, it's pretty, watching the movie.

ANGEL: After all, going to a drive-in movie theater isn't really about the movie. It's about the experience of being there.

For NPR News, I'm Brenna Angel in Lexington, Kentucky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.