Coming Soon: The Summer When You’re Expected to Save Drive-In Movie Theaters

Care to cough up a $100 donation on top of the cost of popcorn?

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Erin Slonaker / Getty Images

Later this year, movie studios are scheduled to stop distributing films in old-fashioned 35-millimeter format. Everything will go digital, which is fine for the vast majority of indoor theaters that have already upgraded to digital projectors. It’s a different story with drive-ins, however, many of which find themselves in need of handouts to pay for the upgrade. Care to cough up a $100 donation on top of the cost of popcorn?

Yes, there are still drive-in theaters in existence, though it’s rare for a state to have more a handful left. For example, there are eight drive-in theaters in Michigan, according to MichiganDriveIns.com. MLive reported that at least one of the existing theaters, the Capri Drive-In, just paid $144,000 to upgrade two of its projectors to digital. It’s unlikely that all of the other drive-ins will be able to do the same. Drive-ins are hardly big money makers; more than 150 others in the state have closed over the years.

DriveInTheater.com has a state-by-state list of operational and dead drive-ins, and for every state, the deceased list is far longer. Once, more than 4,000 drive-ins dotted the nation. More than three-quarters of them closed by the late ’80s.

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Most of the drive-ins that have managed to stay in business aren’t in the position to devote tens of thousands of dollars to new equipment. In January, the Los Angeles Times estimated that 90% of the nation’s 368 existing drive-ins had not yet converted to digital projectors—not because they’re stuck in the past and love film, but because converting to digital costs a hefty $70,000 or so per screen.

That’s why nostalgic movie fans around the country are being asked to “save the drive-in.” In Vermont, the Fairlee Drive-in and Motel (yep, you can watch movies from your car, or from a bed) has started a “Save the Drive-in” campaign that hopes to raise $70,000 for the projector upgrade. To do so, the business is selling T-shirts and posters, and it’s accepting donations via phone, PayPal, check, or money dropped off in person. “For anyone donating $100 or more,” the theater’s site explains, “their name will be included in a list of Fairlee Drive-in Patrons displayed on a plaque displayed permanently on the back of the Projection Booth.”

The historic Skyline Drive-In in Shelton, Wash., has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $40,000 for its digital conversion. At last check, a little over $15,000 has been pledged, but as per Kickstarter rules, if the full $40K is not reached by May 12, the theater won’t see a dime. And if that happens, the drive-in might not be able to celebrate its 50th year in business in 2014.

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At least one Kickstarter “save the drive-in” project has already come up short. A campaign to raise $40,000 for the Midway Drive-in in Illinois ended last October before reaching its goal.

The fate of the Midway, and many other drive-ins, remains undetermined. The manager of a pair of drive-ins in Idaho said that the business will stay open as long as 35-mm films are available, only “I don’t know how long that’s going to be.”

One drive-in owner in central Pennsylvania said his decision to pay over $50,000 to convert to digital came down to this: “It’s either convert or go out of business.”

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For a glimpse of what could happen to at least a few of the theaters that can’t come up with the money, we can look to Minnesota’s Cottage View Drive-In. After years of struggling financially, the owners put the theater up for sale a few years ago. A “Save the Cottage View” Facebook page was created, generating 17,000 likes. Nonetheless, the owners sold the 22-acre theater last year, according to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. Construction of a 178,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter got underway on the site this spring.

1 comments
carlweese
carlweese

Last year I ran a successful Kickstarter project to help with expenses to finish a long-term project with a 17,000 mile road trip photographing America's remaining drive-in theaters (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1530433688/the-american-drive-in-movie-theater). I was amazed at how many theaters had already managed the digital transition, or thought they would succeed. Few admitted that they would have to close, though the cost of conversion is way out of line with a small theater's income. With my small experience of Kickstarter, I think it may be hard to use a world-wide crowdsourcing vehicle to win support for a very small local business. The good news is that a lot of theaters have managed to raise the needed funds in local community efforts. Good luck to all of them.