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Switch to digital costly for drive-in theaters

GLENDALE, Ariz. — An upcoming change in the movie industry could spell doom for many drive-in theaters around the nation.

Movie studios are phasing out 35-millimeter film prints. That means the drive-ins will have to upgrade to digital to keep showing Hollywood hits.

“There will be an announcement — we expect it sometime this year — from one of the major film companies that with such-and-such movie they will no longer make film,” said D. Edward Vogel, a spokesman for the United Drive-in Theater Owners Association and owner of Bengies Drive-in in Baltimore.

It’s the latest in a series of events that have led to the decline of drive-in theaters. In their heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins across the country. With the advent of the multiplex and home entertainment, that number has dwindled to about 350.

The Valley used to be home to several drive-ins, including the Thunderbird, Cinema Park, Silver Dollar, Big Sky, Rodeo, Round-up, Acres, Indian, Northern and Pioneer. Only two remain open now in the entire state of Arizona: The West Wind Glendale 9 Drive in Glendale, and the Apache Drive-in in Globe.

West Wind’s other Valley drive-in, the Scottsdale 6, recently closed. “Our Scottsdale business was thriving. It was doing very, very well,” said Travis Brown, general manager of the Glendale 9. “There was some sort of lease dispute between the tribal Indian section and our company, and, unfortunately, we ended up having to close down the location.”

But the Glendale 9 forges ahead, and has already made the switch to digital. Brown said the drive-in is the world’s largest all-digital outdoor cinema.

“All of the 35mm auto-wind platters (are) all gone,” Brown said. “Everything’s done by digital. Everything’s done by download.”

Up until April, the drive-in used the 35mm prints, which were large and round and laid on a platter. The movies that are being shown now are about the size of a portable hard drive. There’s no longer a need for a projectionist in the booth.

“The computer kicks it on and everything is automated now,” Brown said. “If we program the movie to start at 7:15 or 8:00 or 8:15, the computer boots up one minute ahead of time and starts the movie right on time.”

Brown said the picture and sound are both better with the new system, and that the chance it will break down is minimal.

Vogel said the new digital equipment will allow drive-in theater owners to think outside of the box.

“You are able to do other things with this machine than just show movies,” said Vogel. “Indoor theaters have been very successful broadcasting opera through their digital systems.”

He said drive-ins have the same potential.

“With the proper licensing, a drive-in equipped with digital could show the Super Bowl, for example, and have the biggest tailgate party you ever saw,” said Vogel.

But the cost to install the equipment is high — nearly $70,000 per screen. Theater chains like West Wind, which owns the Glendale 9, have been able to make the switch. But, typical one-screen drive-ins owned by one person may not be able to switch, and many of the independent owners may have to close.

Vogel admitted, “At the end of the day, we probably will see some drive-ins close.”

But Vogel said the days of the American icon known as the drive-in theater are far from over. He said he doesn’t see most drive-ins as money makers, but as “labors of love,” and he said he’s optimistic they still have a future.

“Each drive-in has a fan base,” said Vogel. “Even if the current owner cannot see their way to convert to digital, for whatever reason, my hope is that a young entrepreneur or somebody that sees the opportunity may endeavor to keep that drive-in going.”