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.
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