With studios planning to phase out 35mm prints by the end of this year, drive-in movie theatre owners are faced with the decision whether or not to convert to perhaps prohibitively expensive digital projection
The American drive-in movie theatre faces a new threat to it already tenuous existence. With studios planning to phase out 35mm prints by the end of this year, drive-in movie theatre owners are faced with the decision whether or not to convert to digital projection. A digital projector can cost upward of $85,000, plus installation. Many drive-ins have more than one screen, and would thus need the requisite projectors.
The average drive-in is independently-owned and in a business in which studios take most of the proceeds and profits come from snack bar sales, converting to digital would for many be a prohibitive expense. The first “Park-In” theatre, as it was initially known, opened 80 years ago in Camden New Jersey. In its 1950s heyday, there were more than 5,000 drive-ins across the country. Today, there are less than 400. Because of land values, many drive-ins are like poor George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”; worth more dead than alive.
But the nostalgic pull of the classic drive-in movie theatre is strong and crowdfunding—soliciting money from the public for various personal, philanthropic projects or social awareness campaigns—may provide a Hollywood happy ending to this story. Several campaigns have been launched to raise the necessary funds to keep the drive-in from going dark.
Project Drive-In (wwwProjectDriveIn.com), an Indiegogo campaign, looks to raise at least $100,000 to “(save) a piece of Americana, one family business at a time.” Contributors are directed to the Project Drive-In website to vote for their favorite drive-in theatre in need of a digital projector, The initial $100,000 raised will go to the winning drive-in. “If we reach our first $100,000, we will reset the fundraising goal to another $100,000, and try to save another drive-in,” the campaign’s website proclaims. “How many can we save? It’s all up to you.”
Driving this particular campaign is Honda. In honor of “this iconic part of American culture,” Honda itself is donating five digital projectors to the cause. “Your vote decides where they go,” the campaign webpage pledges. Thus far, the Project Drive-In has raised $32,661.
Some campaigns on behalf of the drive-in have been successful. A Kickstarter campaign on behalf of the Skyline Drive-In, one of the five remaining drive-ins operating in Washington state, reached its goal of $40,000. Last year, photographer Carl Weese surpassed his crowdfunding goal of $8,800 (he raised $17,292) for a cross-country road trip to photograph drive-ins.
Others have not. New Hampshire’s Weirs Drive-In Theatre, built in 1949, failed to raise even $1,000 of its $70,000 goal.
The drive-in has survived property buyouts, downsized automobiles (ever try to squeeze into the trunk of a Mini Cooper?), competition from multiplexes. Can it survive the digital age? We’ll find out further next summer.
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.