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."
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