NEWVILLE - Cumberland Drive-in Theater co-owner Jay Mowery says that for 61 years his venerable outdoor entertainment venue has withstood a myriad of technological advances - from television through downloads of movies on the Internet - but the cost of switching to a digital projection system could turn out the lights for good.
As the film industry phases out 35 mm prints in favor of all-digital distribution and projection, local and outdoor theaters which have used the print system for years face the high cost of change.
Local owners say the $70,000-plus investment required per screen is significant, especially for what in many theaters is a highly seasonal business kept alive by mom-and-pop operators. The cost of the switch would suck up most owners’ profits for years to come.
But the Cumberland Drive-in’s Mowery say that thanks to Honda there is still hope for the theater because of Honda Project Drive-In — www.projectdrivein.com — started to financially help drive-ins go digital. “It’s not only about the cars and drive-in movies, it’s also about people’s fond memories that date back to the 1950s,” he said.
“I think it’s a great project that they (Honda) are doing,” Mowery said. “We are involved not only in hopes of getting the projector, which would be fantastic, but also to promote the plight of drive-in theaters nationwide.”
Cumberland Drive-In is one of many nationwide highlighted in Honda’s project, but it is the only one in the Midstate on the project’s list. Haar’s Drive-In in Dillsburg is also raising money for its transition, but is not participating in the project.
“Starting with television and right up through computers and Internet downloads, cable television and everything else, every one of these that came along, they said this is going to ruin the drive-in,” he said. “The difference was, they didn’t cost us money, they just cost us business. Now the film companies are demanding this be done or you are out of business. Drive-in theaters just don’t have that kind of money sitting around. It is difficult to go to a bank and get loans whenever you don’t have the kind of income that justifies that kind of purchase. That is where the problem lies.”
The digital transformation has been underway in the film industry for more than a decade because of the better picture and sound quality and the ease of delivery — no more large metal cans of film. Film producers are doing it to cut expenses.
“The problem I have with it, “Mowery said, “there is almost no noticeable difference for the patrons. One of my objections all along has been if we are going to spend $75,000 to $100,000, we would like to see something better for our customers.”
He said that in order to convert to the new format, nearly every piece of equipment would need an upgrade, from the projector to the lamp house to the sound system.
“We got 62 years out of our current projector,” Mowery said. “We are still using the projector that my father put in there in 1952, and it runs fantastic as long as it is maintained. It’s just like it was when we put it in. This new one’s digital, but we all know how technology is. We will be lucky to get five or six years out of it.”
He said the new digital equipment would be an ongoing yearly expense, one that many drive-ins can’t justify.
“Our drive-in I know is very popular in the community,” he said. “On a nice night, it is a great family place to enjoy entertainment and a movie on a giant screen, which doesn’t happen very often anywhere. We appreciate all the support we can get from the community. We have a strong customer base so we are hopeful. I think we can compete for this, but I am also hopeful that we won’t necessarily have to close if we don’t get it either.”
Moviegoers can vote at the Project Drive-in website determine which five drive-in theaters will receive a new digital projector from Honda. The site also encourages movie fans to use social media go gain pledges to see one movie at their local drive-in and contribute to the national save-the-drive-in fund to keep more drive-ins in business.
Votes can be cast twice a day, online and by text, which started on Aug. 9 and runs until Sept. 9. Votes can be cast online for Cumberland Drive-In at projectdrivein.com/#vote_65 and by texting Vote 65 to 444999.
Mowery said 80 drive-ins around the country are competing, and in the first week, nearly 400,000 votes had already been cast.
The number of drive-ins peaked at more than 4,000 in the late 1950s, but have dwindled to just 357 nationally.
“Cars and drive-in theatres go hand in hand, and it’s our mission to save this slice of Americana that holds such nostalgia for so many of us,” said Alicia Jones, manager of Honda and Acura Social Marketing American Honda Motor Co., Inc. “We’re committed to helping drive-in theaters remain viable and flourish with the move to digital projection.”