News Column

Digital Conversion May Kill Drive-in Theaters

August 19, 2013

YellowBrix

Clara Marona just doesn't have $140,000.

And without that money, the Wilderness Outdoor Movie Theater in Trenton, Ga., the closest drive-in theater to Chattanooga, will probably be going the way of the dinosaurs when the movie-theater industry completes its conversion to an all-digital, no-film format. Wilderness shows 35mm films and has two screens, so the cost of converting would be double the estimated $70,000 per digital projector, said Marona, administrative director at the drive-in.

"We'll just have to shut down, I suppose," she said.

If so, Wilderness will join many of the 368 drive-ins left in the country that could be forced to turn out the lights over the next few years. Almost all drive-ins still use 35mm film prints, but movie studios are phasing those out in favor of an all-digital format in which films can be downloaded.

Digital films offer clearer pictures and spunkier sound, but the move is also financial. Film prints can cost between $1,500 and $2,000 apiece. With highly anticipated films such as "Marvel's The Avengers," "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" and "The Hunger Games" opening on more than 4,000 screens at once, the cost of prints alone can run from $6 million to $8 million.

"We know fewer and fewer prints are being struck," said D. Edward Vogel, spokesman for the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association and owner of Bengies Drive-In in Baltimore.

Many drive-ins are mom-and-pop operations -- and open only during the summer -- so paying for even a single digital projector would suck up most profits for years to come. Unlike movie houses, drive-ins usually only show films at night on weekends. It would take a long time to recoup the investment on a digital projector, Marona said.

An industry incentive program will reimburse theater owners 80 percent of the cost of conversion over time, Vogel said, but it's hard for most owners to find the money, period. And the reimbursement doesn't cover the tens of thousands of dollars needed to install climate control in projection rooms for the high-tech equipment. The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association figures 50 to 60 theaters already have converted.

In Alabama, Henagar Drive-in owner Lanita Price said her theater is somewhat smaller, meaning the "throw" -- or distance between her current 1962-era military projector and the screen -- is less than some. She thinks her cost to convert would be about $35,000.

"I started shopping around," she said. "I only have to throw about 300 feet. You used to be able to buy used equipment cheaper for drive-ins like mine, but there aren't any used digital projectors out there. But the prices are coming down."

A couple of years ago, the price for a digital projector was $150,000, she said.

"I know most of the theaters will shut down, but we are not planning on shutting down," Price said. "We built back after the F5 tornado came through here in 2011, so hopefully digital won't shut us down."

Many of the nation's small, independent theaters also are struggling to pay for digital conversion years after corporate-owned multiplexes made the change. But even some corporate-owned complexes may be victims of the digital revolution.

Movie houses that show second-run films at discounted prices, such as the Wynnsong 10 at Hamilton Place mall in Chattanooga, will either have to convert or find a way to deal with a shrinking inventory.

"The thing with drive-ins is that at least they can show first-run movies," said Jeremy Devine, a vice president of marketing with movietickets.com, an industry-oriented website. "Things become even tighter for these sub-market movie houses. They have the double whammy of having to convert in an already smaller market."

Wynnsong 10 is owned by Carmike Cinemas. Carmike spokesman Rob Rinderman said he is not aware of any plans to convert the chain's 15 or so discount theaters to digital.

"But if it gets to the point that we can't get prints, we will have to re-evaluate things," he said.

Henagar's Price said there are positives to converting, however. The picture is better and "once you get your hands on [a projector], it can eliminate a need for a projectionist, and since that's me, I'd be happy. Plus, you can use it like a TV and show football games or special events. It does a lot more."

Sticking around and showing older 35mm films is not really an option, Marona said.

"The films get old and brittle and, honestly, people don't come. We've tried showing old ones before like 'E.T.' They say they'll come, but they don't.

"You have to keep up with the times or shut down."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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(c)2013 Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

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