Can Drive-Ins Come Back?
At the height of their popularity in the 1950s more than 4,000 drive-in theatres covered the American landscape. Changing movie-viewing habits and rising real estate prices saw their numbers dwindle, but there are now signs that they’re making a comeback, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. The association notes that drive-in theatres not only remain a time honored American institution, but in a battered economy, they still offer one of the best values for family entertainment. And a growing number of drive-in owners are finding that converting to digital cinema makes good business sense. But they face still several hurdles that their indoor counterparts do not and much was a stake when the association held its 12th annual convention last week in Kissimmee, Florida.
As Dan Doperalski reported in Variety, the two biggest hurdles are the fact that neither the Digital Cinema Initiative tech specifications nor the virtual print fee business model were conceived with drive-ins in mind. He also said that some sort of waiver might be announced at the UDITOA meeting.
“For drive-in operators, an updated DCI is critical, since theatres must meet DCI specs to get digital prints and must convert to digital to receive VPF,” Doperalski wrote. “Drive-ins can't meet the current version of the specs because they can't provide masking to change the aspect ratio of their screens and can't deliver 5.1 sound. Most drive-in sites have converted their sound system to FM transmission, by which patrons receive the soundtrack through their car stereo. Only a few have maintained old-style window speakers for nostalgia.”
He added, “The update is also expected to waive or revise the requirement that outdoor theatres meet the same brightness standards as indoor theatres: 14 foot Lamberts. Faced with interference from ambient light and throw distances as long as 900 feet in some theatres, even drive-ins with the most powerful projectors on the market get only about 10 Lamberts. Most drive-ins typically get 5-7 Lamberts. The enticement for drive-in operators is that digital projectors would provide more flexibility in theatrical programming, as well as the ability to present 3D, allowing exhibitors to screen alternative content including concerts, sports and cultural performances.
After the conference I spoke with UDITOA president John Vincent about the past, present and future of drive-ins in North America.
Vincent is the owner of Wellfleet Cinemas on Cape Cod Island in Massachusetts. His business is a growing model for drive-in owners moving forward because in addition to his drive-in he operates a four-screen indoor theatre. Both the indoor and outdoor facilities currently run 35mm film but Vincent hopes to convert the complex to digital this year, ideally before the start of the summer season.
Digital Cinema Report: What progress, if any, were you able to report at the conference regarding amendments for drive-ins of the DCI specs?
John Vincent: To my knowledge there is no addendum to DCI proposed or in the works. Simply put, there would be provisions in the contracts with the integrators and/or directly with exhibitors and distributors during the normal course of business that would make allowances for areas of DCI that are not practical in the outdoor environment. I will note that SMTPE recognized the difficulties with illumination in the Drive-In in the film world with SMTPE RP-12-1997. We expect with the current line of series 2 projectors we will have a much improved image than was possible with 35mm, and in many cases we will able to meet 14 foot Lamberts where we would have not with 35mm. DCR: Is it true that an updated DCI is critical for drive-in operators, specifically regarding the requirements for sound? JV: True, but I will note that those who still have window speakers like myself also do the FM for those who want the best sound.
DCR: What progress can you report on VPF deals for drive-ins?
JV: We have made positive progress on both DCI issues and VPF's, that's all I am able to say because of non-disclosure agreements, a requirement of all integrators including Christie. Christie, GDC and Barco were sponsors of the UDITOA conference and Barco also provided a digital cinema projector which attendees were able to set up out of the box.
DCR: How realistic is it to believe that drive-ins can make a comeback in North America?
JV: If you're referring to drive-In attendance per site, drive-Ins have been in a comeback mode for close to 20 years. If you’re referring to screen count, we are worried about the effect of the ultimate discontinuation of 35mm film on the drive-In industry.
DCR: How many drive-ins are there today in United States? How does that compare with a year ago?
JV: There are 443 known drive-ins with 734 screens worldwide. In the US the screen count from last year is down 12 to 606 screens.
DCR: How many North American drive-ins are digital today and how does that compare with a year ago?
JV: Many drive-ins are closed for the season. Of the ones that are open or converted last summer there were fifteen screens at seven sites. More are in the conversion process.
DCR: What’s next for the UDITOA?
JV: Since drive-ins are getting a later start, nearly all our new projectors will be capable of higher frame rates. We are very excited to provide this improvement in the movie going experience. With moviegoers seeking to recapture the magical memories of their youth, digital technology represents for drive-ins a distinctive competitive edge against the hard tops – what many drive-in owners call indoor theatres – by offering alternative content such as major sporting events, musical and other cultural performances, in a unique outdoor environment, under the stars.
Sponsoring the conference was part of what Christie sees as its ongoing commitment to keep as many drive-ins open as possible. “No single institution in American cinema history offers the sense of nostalgia, romance and freedom that drive-in theatres convey,” says Craig Sholder, vice president of Christie’s entertainment solutions. “With more than 80 years serving the exhibition community, Christie understands first-hand the challenges of running drive-ins and we are eager to bring them into the modern age, preserving this important legacy of cinema history.”
In the southern and Midwest states specifically, he said Christie has joined forces with two of the country’s most renowned dealers – Sonic Equipment Company and Entertainment Supply and Technologies – to offer complete, single-source digital cinema solutions. Design, consultation, installation, and ongoing support are available from Christie and its partners. As well, Christie’s Network Operating Center can provide 24/7 technical support and ongoing maintenance.
For more than 60 years, the Silver Moon Drive-In Theatre has been a landmark in central Florida, where it was the first of its kind to open in Lakeland. Today, the Silver Moon continues to operate successfully, offering a double feature of first-run movies on two screens. “We are the last drive-in theatre in Polk County, but we are here to stay,” says owner Harold T. Spears.
ES&T recently completed the digitization of Silver Moon. ES&T chose the Solaria Series Christie CP2230 digital projectors as the most effective for lighting up the two massive screens of 55-feet and 70-feet. “Audiences have remarked how much brighter and sharper the images on the screen are now,” says Bruce Schneiter, vice-president, technical services, at ES&T. “Christie was our first choice, because they have always provided top-level products and service, and they stand behind everything they offer. They are unparalleled for their technical expertise and industry experience.”
Recognized by the National Association of Theatre Owners as one of the oldest family-owned circuits in the Midwest, B&B Theatres have seen the coming of sound, color, widescreen, digital, 3D and countless other advances in stereo sound and projection technologies. Currently, B&B Theatres operate in towns of all sizes, opening multiplex theatres in many of the same places that once housed their old-time, single-screen and twin theatres.
When B&B Theatres decided to replace its two aging downtown movie houses in Moberly, Missouri with a new, multi-million-dollar multiplex, they built on their drive-in theatre lot – vacant since 1985 – and put the drive-in screen back to work as well. The new theatre complex, opened in 1997, is called the Moberly Five and Drive. Sonic, a Kansas-based digital cinema integrator and certified Christie partner, installed a Christie CP2230 DLP Cinema projector with a 4,500-watt bulb for the drive-in’s large, 64-foot-wide screen.
According to Dan VanOrden, circuit general manager of B&B Theatres, “I was extremely impressed with the results. The audience, too, absolutely loved the bright new look. The drive-in is so bright now that Highway 63 is lit up in front of it.” VanOrden says that the conversion to digital gave Moberly many more options for alternative content, as well. “We’ve been able to run DVD’s of classic movies, for example, and they actually look much better on that huge screen than their old 35mm prints did.”
Sonic had previously installed Christie digital projectors in six drive-in screens in Texas, including the Stars and Stripes in Lubbock, as well as the Big Sky in Midland. “Speaking for The Big Sky, our Christie Solaria projector gives us a gorgeous picture and our customers love it,” says Sam Kirkland, owner of The Big Sky. “When a drive-in goes to digital movies, it’s a big difference from film, and people see that difference immediately. The quality at drive-in theatres using Christie projectors is as good as the indoor theatres now.”
Steve Zimmerman, director of business development at Sonic, agreed. “Both Sonic and the theatre owners at these locations in Texas were extremely impressed with the end result, allowing us to confidently recommend Christie to B&B Theatres,” he says.
“Christie is committed to ensuring that America’s drive-ins remain competitive for generations to come by providing them with the dazzling images of digital cinema and the expanded revenue streams of alternative content. As we have been for more than 80 years, we are here for the long term to support them with superior customer service,” says Sholder. “Along with exceptional partners such as Sonic and ES&T, we want movie goers everywhere to rediscover the pleasure of watching the big screen under ‘the big sky.’”
The Big Sky Drive-In and the Stars and Stripes, both feature outdoor screens up to 90 feet wide. Among the first drive-ins in the country to install digital technology, Stars & Stripes and the Big Sky drive-ins were also the first multi-screen drive-ins in the country.
Big Sky owner Sam Kirkland opened the drive-in in October 2005 with two screens, both of which had 35mm projectors. He added a third screen in 2007. Two of Big Sky's three screens are 45 feet by 90 feet, with parking spaces for 436 cars and 382 cars; the third screen, at 35 feet by 70 feet, can handle 198 cars. Sonic did the conversion using Christie digital projectors.
“When a drive-in goes to digital movies, it’s a big difference from film, and audiences see the difference immediately,” says Kirkland. “Our Christie projector gives us a gorgeous picture and our customers love it.”
Lamont Furlow, the 60-year old general manager of Big Sky, whose parents managed a local drive-in theatre, recalled that he was virtually born into the movie theatre business. "Directly or indirectly, I've been in the exhibition business all my life, and have a special passion for the drive-in," he says. "I'm not real computer literate, but when we had some initial challenges the first week, we called our Christie representative and he talked us through the situation right over the phone. The show started on time and the entire system has worked beautifully every since.”
Most importantly, Furlow says, "Now that we're digital, lighting the screen is no longer an issue. Our patrons enjoy even the darkest scenes in a movie.” In the past, Big Sky also had serious problems getting the picture focused when running 35mm projectors. "With Christie digital projectors, it's now in perfect focus," he says.
“My immediate reaction when we showed our first movie in digital was, that can't be my screen. We couldn't be more pleased with our new Christie projectors.” Ryan Smith had fond childhood memories of working in his grandparents’ indoor theatre, as well as nights spent at the local drive-in. In 2003, at the age of 24, he opened the Stars & Stripes Drive-In Theatre with two screens and two used 35mm projectors, assisted by his parents.
Today, with two screens that measured 35 feet by 70 feet, and one measuring 45 feet by 90 feet, the earliest lesson he learned about drive-in theatres, says Smith, was that, "you just can't get enough light on those big screens." Smith selected Christie projectors, financing the cost of the digital conversion himself. Sonic supervised the installation and helped to train Smith and his staff. The impact was instantaneous.
According to Smith, in the first week they opened, "People noticed that something was different. They realized the picture was brighter. And I was thrilled to provide my customers with ‘indoor-movie’ picture quality." Smith is now eager to explore the expansion of his business with new kinds of content, such as sporting events, concerts, and cultural performances. "We were always constrained by film," he says. "With digital, there are no limitations. We are very pleased with our Christie projectors.”
“Our customers have all praised the outstanding image quality of Christie digital projectors and we love their ease of use, and their low cost of operation,” says Sonic’s Zimmerman. “As a Christie certified partner, we look forward to helping America’s drive-ins enter the digital age and bring a new level of entertainment to the next generation of moviegoers and beyond.”
“Drive-in theatres have always been a romantic business venture that faced many technical challenges,” says Sholder. “The limited amount of light that can be projected on the screen from even the most powerful film projectors is not always sufficient to compete with the ambient light of the outdoors. This has often seriously affected the quality of the projected image and undermined the movie-viewing experience for many patrons. Christie projectors are ideally suited for the outdoor environment where ease of operation – especially to focus and scale images – and high brightness levels are critical.”