May 02--QUEENSBURY -- The Glen Drive-In theater is finishing its first major renovation in about 55 years.
It's a doozy.
Owner Brett Gardner, who like hundreds of other independent movie theater owners nationwide was facing a convert-or-close deadline, has invested about $140,000 in state-of-the-art digital projection equipment that will be fired up Friday for the first time, with a showing of "Iron Man 3."
It's the start of a season Gardner hopes will help his business recoup some of the forced expense.
The digital conversion is being forced on all movie theaters by the six major movie companies, including Disney and MGM, which long ago began converting to digital movie technologies.
The movie houses are moving toward eliminating production of movies on 35 mm film but have not provided a firm date by which film will no longer be available.
Larger theater companies have already converted to digital technology, but a lot of independently owned theaters have yet to do so.
A better experience
On the brighter side, the new projectors are expected to bring a better movie experience to customers.
"It's going to be better all the way around," Gardner said Monday, as he worked with a technician to install fresh-out-of-the-crate equipment.
John Vincent, president of United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, said he understands the evolution to digital, even if it's a tough expense to take on.
"Film has been around for 100 years, and truth be told, it's a very intense use of plastics," Vincent said. "Each copy of a movie for a theater in 35 mm is about two miles of film. So, I'm actually quite surprised that it lasted 100 years, and particularly, I'm surprised it's lasted the last 10 years."
For drive-ins, the new technology will come with a marked improvement in movie quality, Vincent said.
"We've heard this time and time again from the theaters that have converted, especially one that did it last year, that the feedback from the customers was great," Vincent said. "They really appreciated the brighter picture. No matter how good your setup was with film, it could only be so bright or you would melt the film."
In recent years, filmmakers have provided drive-in theaters with copies of movies designed to run at a faster speed, allowing for brighter images without melting the film. But the cost of that was paid in picture quality, Vincent said.
"The higher film speed you go, the more graininess you get," he said.
Gardner said the conversion includes his sound system, which should allow for better quality than in the past. The speakers on the poles in the parking area aren't being changed, but car stereo sound should be improved for the "Iron Man 3" showing, he said.
The upgrade was paid for with a combination of loans and private funds, Gardner said. The price of a ticket is going from $8 to $9 for adults -- children are still admitted for $4 -- to help recover the cost of the conversion, but Gardner emphasized Glen Drive-In customers still get two movies for their ticket.
Independently owned indoor theaters nationwide are also struggling to convert to digital technology, but drive-in theaters are in a tough spot for two reasons, Vincent explained. First, they are typically seasonal, so they have a shorter window in which to realize revenue. Second, because of the distances involved between the projection booths and the screens, they need to have the most powerful projectors available.
Aimie's Dinner & Movie in Glens Falls is in the process of working out financing for its conversion, said co-owner Kerry Metivier.
"You have to; you can't not do it," Metivier said. "Eventually, there's just not going to be film."
Metivier estimated it's going to cost $50,000 to $60,000 to buy a new projector. Because he doesn't need top-end projectors, he's able to take advantage of the falling price of lower-end systems.
"We have a small theater with a very short throw, so we can get, basically, the projector with the lowest power and still get crisp pictures, but they still come at a price," Metivier said. "It's now the most expensive part of the business: projection equipment. For us, in the beginning, it was more the kitchen and food service equipment."
Metivier said Aimie's has been working with local banks to secure financing, but he wasn't sure when the new system would be in place. While it's already harder to get film-based movies from studios, he said he thinks there's plenty of time to convert his theater.
Much of the expense of the new projectors lies in the security protocols involved.
To keep movies from being copied or shown at unlicensed venues, the new projectors come with secure servers: computers that require theater staff to enter an encryption key to play the movie each night. The encryption key comes by email after the movie arrives and is only good for the duration of the licensed showings for each theater. After that, the encryption keys no longer work.
The digital equipment does offer some other benefits, Gardner explained. Whereas in the past, to show his double features, film would have to be spliced together at Glen Drive-In, the new projectors can be set up like a play list, complete with customized commercials, which Gardner was still working out details on this week.
They are also providing a commercial-quality image beyond what's possible in most home theater systems.
Other theaters around the region and into the North Country are dealing with the same crisis. Several have banded together to seek funding, an effort coordinated by Adirondack Film Society and Adirondack North Country Association, a community development group.
"There's an emotional connection to our small-town theaters and everything they provide beyond just screening movies," said Melissa Hart, a spokeswoman for the Adirondack North Country Association. "They provide a community gathering place. A lot of times, they show programing beyond movies -- they do theater and music events -- but, obviously, the movies help them stay open. So, if they were to lose that aspect of their business, a lot of them would have to close."
Hart said 10 theaters have teamed to seek funding for conversions. The effort is online at adirondack.org/
GoDigital, where visitors will find links to information about the campaign and ways to donate.
Online donations are being done through a site called Razoo, a crowdfunding site designed for nonprofits that sends donors receipts for use in tax deductions.
But the effort is also seeking sponsorships, grants and loan opportunities, Hart said.
The campaign was launched April 26 and had raised about $10,000 as of last week, Hart said. She estimated $1.5 million is needed to convert all the theaters' screens.
"Basically, each theater has to upgrade the projector, but they also have to upgrade their sound systems and make everything ready to be 3-D quality," Hart said. "Some theaters just aren't there yet."
Independent theater owners often operate on shoestring budgets. Some, like Indian Lake Theater, are nonprofit, and they don't have the means to secure private loans, Hart said.
But being nonprofit was also a boon for Indian Lake Theater, which is already supported by community donors, said Director Danielle Shaw.
"We ran a capital campaign to let all of our existing donors know, and all of our patrons, that we were facing this challenge at the same time we were facing some building maintenance issues," Shaw said.
The capital campaign has raised $141,000 toward a goal of $200,000 to cover both the conversion and the building work, Shaw said. As a result, the last movie on 35 mm film will be shown at the theater Memorial Day weekend, and a new digital projector will go online the first week in June, she said.
"Last year at this time, everyone kind of had their hands up in the air and thought, 'What are we going to do?' We're hoping all the other North Country theaters can join us in making the conversion."
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