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America's Last, Remaining Drive-Ins Face a New Threat

Claire Suddath
Photograph by Arthur Tilley, Getty Images

In 1993, Chuck and Marianne James heard that the drive-in movie theater in the town of Pueblo, Colo., was scheduled for demolition. Like the nostalgic cinephiles they are, they bought the business. “We didn’t have a business plan or anything,” explains Chuck James, who’s now 58. “We just wanted to see if we could save it.”

Pueblo once boasted four drive-in theaters, but now the Mesa Drive-In, built in 1951, is the only one. The same thing has happening in towns across the country; the number of drive-ins in America has dwindled from over 4,000 in the 1960s to about 360 today.

[See more: Lights Out for Drive-Ins]

To fix up their hasty new purchase, the Jameses installed new bathrooms, re-painted the ticket booths, updated the concession stands, and added two movie screens. Soon, cars started pulling into their gravel parking lot. A lot of cars, actually. One night, not long after Mesa’s renovation, 3,427 people showed up for a double feature of "Jurassic Park" and "The Flintstones," hanging out car windows and climbing trees to get a good view. A traffic jam stretched two miles down Highway 50. “The police came out and yelled at me, so we don’t have crowds like that any more,” James says. Now Mesa Drive-In is capped at 750 cars, or about 1,800 people a night.

Unless James and his wife can scrape together $210,000 to pay for digital projectors, there won’t be any cars at the Mesa Drive-In at all next year. “We knew this switch to digital was coming,” he says. “We’ve been saving for years for this. But for us, $210,000 is a huge chunk of change.”

By the end of this year, Hollywood distributors are expected to stop producing movies in traditional 35 millimeter film and switch entirely to digital. The digital push is good for moviegoers who like crisp, shiny blockbusters and for the Hollywood studios who make them; it costs over $1,000 to print one 35 mm film copy, compared to the $100 it takes to release a digital version on an encrypted hard drive. According to industry analytics firm IHS, about 76 percent of all screens across the world have already been upgraded. (In the U.S., the rate is more like 90 percent). But at $75,000 to $100,000 for just one projector, the cost of upgrading to digital is expensive for movie theaters, sometimes prohibitively so. And America’s last remaining drive-ins—the majority of which are still family-owned and seasonally operated—are finding it hard to switch.

“We have challenges that other movie theaters don’t,” says John Vincent, president of United Drive-In Theater Owners Association and the owner of Wellfleet Drive-In in Cape Cod, Mass. “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.”

According to Vincent, only 150 drive-ins have converted so far—the other 210 have until the end of the year either to get with the program or go out of business. Honda Motor (HMC) has launched a campaign to help save them, promising to give away five digital projectors to the establishments that get the most votes on its Project Drive-In website. Mesa Drive-In is one of Honda’s contestants; Vincent’s Wellfleet isn’t because his theater has already upgraded. Last year, Vincent replaced his five 35 mm projectors—which had been running smoothly since they were installed in 1957—for about $70,000 each. “I’ll admit it, it’s a fantastic picture,” he says.

It may seem silly to fret over the fate of 210 movie theaters whose business model is outdated, even compared with regular movie theaters. But art houses and indie film theaters are struggling with the conversion problem, too. “In January, we couldn’t get movie trailers in 35 mm any more, and we knew the window to convert was finally closing,” says Stephanie Silverman, executive director of the Belcourt, a two-screen nonprofit theater in Nashville, Tenn. Because the Belcourt shows a lot of repertory films, it didn’t replace old projectors, just installed digital alongside them. (Price tag: $200,000.) The upgrade has allowed the Belcourt to expand its offerings, but so far the decreased production cost of digital hasn’t translated to savings for the movie theater. “There is a huge cost-benefit for someone, but it’s not us,” she says. “It’s just as expensive to license a movie as it ever was.”

The Honda competition runs though Sept. 9. If James doesn’t win, he says he’ll somehow find the money to keep Mesa Drive-In open. “We’ll take our good credit and equity to the bank and start begging for money,” he says. “Please give me a loan for a projector! I promise I’ll pay!”

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