Drive-In Downer: Why Digital Films Could Sink Iconic Theaters

The movie industry will soon make the jump from 35 mm film to the digital format, and many multiplexes are ready. But the association that represents the drive-in theater industry says its members will be left behind because of high costs.

The movie multiplex is a well-established part of American life now, though a few drive-in theaters are still around, as their retro appeal continues to draw moviegoers in small towns across the country.

But the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA), formed in 1999 “to ensure that drive-in theatres remain a viable and competitive part of the motion picture industry,” says the rise of digital technology might endanger the drive-in’s long-term future.

That’s because the movie industry is beginning to phase out its 35 mm prints, switching over to a digital format that drive-ins aren’t equipped to screen. More details on the change:

Clear benefits, clear costs: Over the last 10 years, digital film format has become an industry standard, and the long-term benefits are clear—including easier deliveries of new movies. However, the equipment required to screen a digital film is different and costly—with a price tag of more than $70,000 per projector. An industry initiative will repay drive-in owners 80 percent of the conversion cost over time, but many of the theaters are family-owned businesses that don’t have a lot of extra income to go around, according to the Associated Press.

We have fewer screens and can only show one or two movies a night. Now we have to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to stay in business.

A scalability problem: Part of the problem, according to UDITOA President John Vincent, is that the economic model strongly favors larger theaters, which can support multiple screens and show films throughout the day. Drive-in theaters “have challenges that other movie theaters don’t,” Vincent told Bloomberg Businessweek. “We have fewer screens and can only show one or two movies a night. Now we have to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to stay in business.”

A little help from Honda: The movies are only half of the drive-in equation—cars are the other. And one auto manufacturer has stepped up to help. Honda recently launched a new effort to draw attention to the plight of the drive-in theater. “We want to preserve this iconic part of American car culture,” the company states on its Project Drive-In microsite. Honda’s initiative is limited: The company is offering to buy five projectors for drive-ins that receive the most votes from movie fans. But it also has launched a crowdfunding effort to help convince the public to donate.

While many are convinced that this will be the last summer for 35 mm film releases,  Vincent says there’s still uncertainty that’s causing frustration for his members.

“Hollywood has not been very helpful in providing a hard-core date,” Vincent, the owner of a Massachusetts drive-in, told the Daily Herald last month. “We’ve all assumed this will be the last summer for film, but nobody has come out and said, ‘This will be the drop-dead date for film.'”

Whatever happens next, one thing is clear: America’s drive-ins face challenging times down the road.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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