Going digital could mean going broke for some drive-in movie theater
That's why at least five of the operators of the seven drive-ins in South Dakota are considering shutting down after this season, rather than making the switch from film reels.
Jeff Logan, owner of Mitchell's Star Lite Drive-In Theatre, announced last week that his business will close at a yet-to-be-determined date at the end of the season. He cited the estimated cost of $70,000 to switch from a 35 mm film projector to a digital projector as the major reason to close the drive-in, which first opened in 1949 and was then known as the Lake Vue Drive-In.
He also cited the short season that's available in South Dakota, with the summer months being the only option to show outdoor movies.
"I think most will close because of this," said Logan, who also owns indoor theaters in Mitchell, Huron and Dell Rapids. "I just don't know how many can afford it."
Across the nation, there are about 350 drive-in theaters still operating. According to research conducted by The Daily Republic in discussions with the state's drive-in owners, South Dakota has seven drive-ins.
But because many drive-in owners are hearing rumors that film companies are pushing to switch from film to digital, their theaters will be forced to upgrade to newer equipment or simply turn dark.
Of South Dakota's seven drive-in theaters, only two confirmed they will be open next summer. Miller's Midway Drive-In and Hermosa's Roy's Black Hills Drive-In are already using digital equipment. Meanwhile, the other five drive-ins in Gregory, Mitchell, Mobridge, Redfield and Winner either say their future is uncertain, or have already said they will close.
Tom Gallup, 70, has been working at Redfield's Pheasant City Drive-in nearly each summer since May 1959, and he's owned it since March 1972.
He said what really upsets him is that film companies are saving millions with this switch by minimizing distribution costs (digital films are much lighter and cheaper to ship than reel films), but no one will answer any questions about when they will stop making 35 mm film.
"They could be doing a lot more to help the smaller theaters survive," he said. "If you're in a community under 100,000, they've wanted to get rid of us for years. And when it happens, a person will have to switch or they'll be out of business. There's no alternative. At this time, I have no idea what we're going to do."
Logan said film companies receive an average of 54 percent of the ticket sales for each movie, based off the theater's own box office reporting. Gallup believes the film companies have wanted to eliminate the smaller theaters for years because they don't serve as many people as more populated areas that have higher attendances at shows.
Logan knows there's no definite date for when the film companies will stop making 35 mm film. As of now, everything is hearsay. But he thinks it will happen -- and soon.
"They've all given a roundabout, saying at the end of the year it will be done," Logan said. "The film companies want to get it done with. They can't wait, but they want to get through the busy time of summer and they've indicated in various ways they want to quit at the end of this year. That's all they've told us."
The National Association of Theatre Owners, which represents 30,000 movie screens in 50 states, has been working with film studios to allow theaters an easy transition to digital.
Patrick Corcoran, NATO's vice president and chief communications officer, said it's been a process that's lasted more than 10 years.
"We're mostly done with the transition," said Corcoran, of Los Angeles. "About 90 percent of our screens have switched to digital. We expect sometime this year studios to stop shipping film, but we don't know exactly when."
Gregory's Hilltop Drive-in, believed to be South Dakota's oldest remaining drive-in, was formed in 1946. Today, the theater -- owned by Cecil Harsin Sr. -- runs one movie Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during the summer months.
His son, Cecil "Louie" Harsin Jr., books all of the films that are shown at the drive-in. Louie said the drive-in has been using a 35 mm projector since 1956 and believes the theater will have to close if film companies convert to all digital.
Since Louie began hearing rumors of the switch, he's started contacting the major companies -- Fox, Universal, Disney and Sony -- to find out when exactly the cutoff will be.
"They say it is coming, but they have no cutoff date," Louie Harsin said. "No one in any of the departments I talked to had any idea when the cutoff date would be."
Harsin believes the film companies are tired of putting movies on such bulky film reels when a smaller option is now available.
A movie on a 35 mm film runs 90 feet per minute and is shipped on 2,000-foot reels, which runs 20 minutes of the film. That equals six reels for a two-hour movie. Harsin estimated one movie that lasts about 1.5 hours is 50 pounds. They can weigh up to 70 pounds.
A digital movie, in its entirety, is much smaller, weighing only about 2 to 3 pounds. It's also less likely to get damaged as easily as thin film can.
"From what I gather, they're about as big as a VCR tape," Harsin said of digital films.
Digital movies are shipped to theaters on an industrial hard drive that plugs into a computer server. Logan said digital movies will eventually be sent via satellite directly to the theater, eliminating all shipping costs.
Mike Donlin, 59, is one of five owners of Miller's Midway Drive-In. He's worked at the theater for about 45 years running the projector.
Despite the cost of $71,000, the Midway Drive-In decided to convert to digital last year. He said the owners had to gut the projection booth and replace everything, including a new sound system to work with the new digital equipment.
The theater shows one movie four nights a week from the middle or end of April to Labor Day. Donlin and the other four owners -- Sally Resel and her three children, Stephan, Stephanie and Sarah -- feel obligated to keep running the theater that was built in 1953.
"If we closed this, people would hang us out to dry," Donlin said. "If we closed this place, people wouldn't know what to do.
"We're in a unique position. We're not doing it as a hobby, but it's not our livelihood, either."
All of the part-owners have other jobs. Donlin and Stephan work in construction, Sarah is a hairdresser, Stephanie works at a chiropractic clinic and Sally is a farm wife.
In Hermosa, which is about 18 miles south of Rapid City, Roy's Black Hills Drive-In didn't have to convert, because it opened late last summer and started as all digital. Owned by Roy Reitenbaugh, 62, the drive-in purchased two digital projectors for about $300,000, he said.
The theater operates daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day and shows different double features on two separate, 80-foot-wide screens. Before and after the holidays, the drive-in shows movies two nights a week. Last year, it ran all the way until Sept. 13.
"Eventually they are going to pay for themselves, but it's not going to be an overnight thing," Reitenbaugh said, referring to the digital projectors.
The drive-in has attracted customers from South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming and averages 500 to 1,000 movie-goers during weekend showings.
Reitenbaugh said even though many drive-ins are closing, he took the risk because of some advice he received from a friend.
Gerald Bullard, who owns Geju Theatre Company, told Reitenbaugh it would be a "worthwhile investment to open a drive-in."
In Mitchell, Logan isn't willing to take the risk.
When he checked the cost to convert the Star Lite to digital, he found it would be about $70,000 for the projector. He said there are other costs that add up, such as installing an air-conditioner in the projection room to keep the unit cool.
Logan said news of others, like Reitenbaugh, using digital projection for a drive-in will not sway him.
"To me, it's a bad business decision," Logan said. "I wouldn't have done it, but he's trying it. The expense, with such a short season, it's still an iffy proposition."
Other drive-in owners around the state gave figures between $60,000 and $100,000 to switch from film to digital.
<'A community service'
In her 63rd year working at the drive-in, Betty Fast, of Winner, isn't jumping to any conclusions. The Winner Drive-In, which operates with 35 mm film, shows one movie Friday through Monday during the summer, and Fast plans to keep doing so until the film companies stop making film.
"It's pretty expensive for a drive-in to switch to digital for only three to four months of the year," she said.
The Winner Drive-In Facebook page has a link to a contest Honda has put together that could possibly save the theater. Honda, which designs digital projectors, has a month-long contest starting Aug. 9 in which five theaters across the country will receive new projectors. Each drive-in puts together a creative video explaining why it deserves a new projector and the top-five vote-getting videos receive new projectors.
Mobridge's Pheasant Drive-In also plans to enter the contest. Anyone can submit a vote starting Aug. 9 at projectdrivein.com.
"Of course we're going to have to switch to digital or quit," said Mobridge's owner, Ron Meyer.
Despite being 70 years old, Gallup, of Redfield, wants to stay in the drive-in business. He says it's "something that gets in your blood" and is important to the community of Redfield.
"I just don't understand it," he said. "There's nothing wrong with the system. The film isn't broken. It's worked for 100 years."
He's going to wait until the end of the summer to see if the film companies continue to make reels for his drive-in to show, but he added it's very possible his drive-in could close.
He admits switching from film to digital is a big investment of time and money, and the business has never been about making large amounts of money, anyway.
"It's more of a community service," Gallup said. "When you get to the end of the year, you hope you've paid the bills and you can supply your utilities over the winter. You hang in there and try to provide a community service because once it's gone, it's gone."
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