The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

September 24, 2013

Drive-in theaters threatened by digital transition

Associated Press

— WICKSBURG, Ala. (AP) — Megan Tamez brings her daughters, Graice, 7, and Izabella, 5, to the Continental Drive-In a couple times a month. Standing near the concession stand recently, the girls ran circles around their mother.

"On cool nights we can sit outside," Tamez said. "We can make noise and we're not interrupting anyone. They like to talk."

It's the perfect movie-viewing experience for the family, who had come to see "Planes." And at $7 for a double feature for adults and $4 for children, it's cheaper than an indoor theater.

They're the same reasons many patrons, especially families, choose drive-in theaters. For others, it's the nostalgia for a by-gone era. But a drive-in theater is not as easy to come by today as it was in the late 1950s, when drive-in theaters numbered around 4,000 in the United States. No, today, there are only about 350 drive-in theaters around the country, and that number is likely to get even smaller as drive-ins face the cost of converting to digital technology.

On a recent Saturday movie night, customers pulled their vehicles into the Continental Drive-In on U.S. 84 between Dothan and Enterprise, parked in their chosen spots in front of one of four screens and tuned their radios to the proper FM station. Some pulled out folding chairs to sit outside. Others piled blankets in truck beds. Screens flickered to life as sunset turned to darkness.

"It's just a little bit more of a personal experience," said Chase Taylor, vice president of Continental Cinemas Corp., which owns the Continental Drive-In. "We have people who drive from ridiculous distances coming here to see a movie - God bless their hearts, I'm glad they come. I've had someone come as far as Jacksonville, Fla., to come watch a movie here . Our regulars more enjoy the family part of it, the prices making it affordable for families to go to the movies."

Taylor developed a love for movies helping his father, Jeff Taylor, run movies on the campus of Troy University. In 1998, the father and son opened the five-screen indoor Continental Cinema in Troy.

The Taylors bought the 16-acre property in Wicksburg as a way to expand into the Dothan and Enterprise markets. Continental Drive-In opened in April 2005 with four outdoor screens named to honor the drive-ins that once populated the Wiregrass ? the Skyview, the Starlight, the Dixieland and the Goober. Continental is one of nine drive-in theaters operating in Alabama.

Drive-in theaters had their heyday as the quintessential teen hangout in the 1950s. The number of drive-in theaters began to drop in the 1970s and 1980s. Everything from increasing land prices to daylight savings time and video rentals can be blamed.

Now, drive-in theaters and even small independent indoor theaters face yet another challenge ? the conversion by the film industry from 35-mm film to digital format. It didn't happen overnight, the film industry has been slowly converting to digital for years. It's reached a point, however, that drive-in theaters must convert or they won't be able to secure new movies. Gone are the canisters of film fed into projectors. Nowadays, movies arrive on a digital hard drive or even downloaded directly from satellite.

It's a sizable investment to convert to digital projectors ? $70,000 or more per screen. Many drive-in theaters just can't afford the expense.

Continental Drive-In in Wicksburg ? a large drive-in with four screens compared to most that have one or two screens ? converted to digital picture and sound in 2011. But Chase Taylor said it saddens him that so many other drive-in theaters around the country may be forced to close.

"I think the strength of our industry is the community aspect of it," Taylor said. "As people, we like to be around other people. There's nothing like watching a great romance, action, drama, comedy together with a group of people. To be scared, to cry, to be sad and excited, whatever the emotion is, there's something about sitting in a place with a group of people and sharing those emotions with them that I think will always, always keep this industry strong."

Exactly how many drive-in theaters have converted to digital is unclear. Some estimates have it as low as 60 while others put the number higher.

Kipp Sherer, co-founder of the website, said tracking drive-in theater numbers is difficult because there's not a lot of information available. Sherer said of the ones the website has information on in the U.S., only 90 have either converted or are in the process of converting.

"But that still leaves roughly 250 to 260 that either haven't converted yet ? and need to pretty quickly ? or they're either going to close down after this season and not convert," said Sherer, who has been tracking data on drive-in theaters since 1999. "Out of those, it's just really not known how many will stay open after this season."

Sherer knows of half a dozen drive-in theaters that have already closed because they're not converting or will close within the week. Some, he said, closed last year rather than converting.

Nobody is suggesting that drive-in theaters will return to their 1950s glory, but there are many who want to at least save the ones that remain. The American Honda Co. has pledged to help nine drive-in theaters convert to digital through its Project Drive-In contest, allowing the public to vote for their favorite drive-in. Five theaters already have been chosen and another four theaters to receive money will be announced on Sept. 23. But that's only nine out of the more than 120 drive-in theaters featured on the Project Drive-In website.

The film industry has also tried to help through a program originally created to help indoor theaters convert to digital. For the past decade, studios have paid what are called virtual print fees to theaters each time a theater shows a digital movie. The fees come out of the money the studio saved by making and distributing a digital movie vs. a 35-mm film. But the program was not extended to cover drive-in theaters until earlier this year.

"If somebody hasn't gone to a drive-in recently, they really should because they really may disappear more quickly than people anticipate," Sherer said. "And once they're gone, they don't come back too often."

On a recent movie night at Continental Drive-In, patrons weren't thinking about the future of the drive-in industry. They were there for an experience.

Madalyn McCombs and Matthew Thorne drove from DeFuniak Springs, Fla., to see a double feature. McCombs arranged the visit as a surprise for Thorne, who works as a cook at a new Carmike Cinema Ovation Club theater in Destin.

When Thorne saw they were visiting a drive-in, he was pleasantly surprised.

"Driving through here, it made me feel like I was in the '70s or '60s," Thorne said.

Marie Gilbert, a regular at a drive-in theater in her home state of Ohio, was making her first visit to the Continental Drive-In.

"It's authentic; it's homey," Gilbert said. "You can meet other people here, put your chairs up and gossip or whatever. To be honest, I would pay more to come to the drive-in than I would a theater."