Stranded at the Drive-In
I didn’t go to many drive-in movie theaters growing up, but one of my favorite films was “Grease,” so I knew Danny Zuko frequented them (and occasionally got stranded there, singing). Not that I can carry a tune, but I’d like to think that if I wanted to cast my silhouette against the drive-in screen and snivel over Olivia Newton-John, I’d be able to. But to hear some people tell it, drive-ins are an endangered species.
There used to be thousands of drive-ins. Now there are fewer than 400. In the 1960s, they got squeezed by television; in the 1980s and 1990s, skyrocketing land values took their toll. I get my info from Scott Hicks, whose parents owned a drive-in theater in Florence, Oregon, in the 1970s. “Working there was one of the best times I’ve ever had,” he emailed me recently. ”I was also a projectionist at another drive-in while attending U of O in Eugene.”
Today, Scott is president of American Cinema Equipment in Portland. “In the 1980s, we converted drive-ins from two-projector carbon-arc operation to automated xenon lamp setups,” Scott says. ”Thirty years later, we are converting again to a new technology.”
That new technology is digital projection. Scott says American Cinema Equipment has converted dozens of drive-ins this summer alone, but it also has a unique project upcoming. It will be the installer that helps realize the vision for Honda Motors’ Project Drive-In, a crowdfunded effort to raise money to help convert drive-ins to digital projection. Honda is using social media to raise money for drive-in theaters. When I first heard about it, I figured AV companies might be behind the effort, but Honda’s involvement is equally apropos — and romantically so. Check out this wonderful video, produced by ad firm RPA.
Honda has pledged to give away five digital projectors to drive-in theaters that people vote for online, while raising money for others. The automaker chose Christie Solaria digital projectors for the project. If you want to vote for a favorite drive-in, you need to do it by Sept. 9.
The gist of the Honda campaign is that drive-ins are more endangered than ever. Not only because people have a-million-and-one new ways of entertaining themselves (think hundreds of cable channels, home cinema, streaming video, etc.), but also because film is almost extinct, and drive-ins that don’t convert to digital by the end of the year won’t have anything new to show. I asked Scott how accurate that prognosis was. His company is a member of the United Drive-In Theatre Association (UDITOA). He said the assessment is pretty accurate.
“Although the studios haven’t given a specific end date, it is widely assumed that many won’t be running prints into 2014,” he says. ”Already, all of my film customers are experiencing print shortages, which results in waiting longer to open a picture or even completely missing a title. The situation is getting worse, week by week. Three clients, not able to afford the technology in smaller towns around Oregon, have already closed, with several more close behind.”
To be sure, there are drive-in operators who are leading the way and remain optimistic about their digital futures. Last year, Film Journal International published a great story about drive-ins entering the digital age. In it, John Vincent, president of the UDITOA is quoted saying, “Financing the transition is probably the biggest challenge for any independent theater owner.”
Scott says maybe 40 percent of drive-in theaters in the U.S. have converted, as opposed to more than 90 percent of traditional, indoor cinemas. And drive-ins don’t just need projectors. Conversion requires servers, sound processors, automation controllers, and networking gear. And drive-ins are a little tougher to outfit. “Most drive-ins are not good environments for server rooms,” Scott says. ”Operators are expending serious cash to rebuild their projector rooms to make them dust free and heated or air-conditioned.”
Still, the overall installation outdoors is similar to indoors. “Except we have to wait for it to get dark in order to shoot colors and do alignments,” Scott says.
I’m thinking lots of you have fond memories of drive-in movie theaters. Share some of them in the comments section below. And consider pitching in for this unique, nostalgic, decidedly pro-AV project. I know the industry has come a long way toward creating new, technologically advanced outdoor AV experiences, but are they the same as throwing the kids in the back of the minivan with their pillows and blankets and letting them doze while you and the spouse bask in the glow of a movie? I wish I’d been to more drive-in movies as a kid. And I’m going to start searching for drive-ins near my home (Honda’s site has a locator).
“Those who try to open with film next year may or may not find product to play,” Scott says. ”Unfortunately, the couple hundred drive-in screens left on film are seasonal operations with marginal profit, if any. True labors of love. We’ve seen a few operators dip into retirement savings to continue for the sake of their community.”
Here’s hoping communities act for the sake of drive-ins.