Movies are in Donna McGrane's blood. Many years ago at Pleasant Valley Drive-In in Barkhamsted, her mother worked in the kitchen and her father ran the projectors.
So McGrane was heartbroken Monday when she found out that the drive-in she runs with her husband did not win an online poll sponsored by Honda to give drive-in movie theaters free digital systems. Nine drive-ins around the country won free systems from Honda in the polling on projectdrivein.com.
Movie theaters nationwide are working hard to upgrade to digital by Jan. 1. In January, film distributors will begin sending almost all movies in digital prints rather than on film in traditional film cans in an effort
to cut distribution costs. Making and shipping a movie on film costs about 10 times what it costs to make and ship a digital copy.
The digital projector Pleasant Valley needs costs about $75,000. McGrane, who has owned the theater with her husband, Tim, for 17 years, said that the additional $25,000 the theater wants to raise would cover electrical upgrades to the theater's projection booth, installation of the new system, maintenance of the system and a mandatory digital-projector training session in Virginia.
What's been dubbed the "go digital or go dark" date of Jan. 1 affects cinemas of all kinds, but drive-ins are especially vulnerable. Those theaters — there are 357 now operating in the United States — are a relic of an earlier era, which usually means old equipment and small crowds. The seasonal nature of drive-ins also cuts down on profitability.
"When I first found out about the contest people already had been voting for three days," McGrane said. Honda let Pleasant Valley join the fray, but the lost time was too great a stumbling block. Additional delays because of paperwork meant "we lost nine days of voting out of 30 right from the start," she said.
McGrane said her theater's two projectors were built in the 1930s and used on a World War II-era Navy ship. "The original owners bought it at an auction right out of that ship in 1947," she said.
Movie theaters nationwide are working hard to upgrade to digital by Jan. 1, although there's extra time for drive-ins such as Pleasant Valley that don't open until warmer weather.
The old-fashioned nature of drive-ins appeals to families with small children and owners of classic cars.
Don Stein, first selectman of Barkhamsted, said the drive-in "is symbolic of small-town values.
"The drive-in is very important to the town. It's been here for 66 years. People take their kids there," he said. "It's the best of small-town living."
Eric Taylor, who brings his 1965 Chevy van to Pleasant Valley, said he's been going there since he was a child in Harwinton.
"I watched the Watertown Drive-In and Torrington Skyview close, along with the Hartford Drive-In and others that were around in the 70s," said Taylor. "There is not a lot of things to do in the northwest corner on the weekends anymore."
Taylor organized a car show at the drive-in so classic car owners could show their support, and said he would schedule others if it would help.
Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners, said there are 5,749 cinemas, including drive-ins, in the country, representing 40,045 screens. Of those, 4,427 are now digital, representing 35,885 screens.
Corcoran said that starting next year, a few old-style film reels will continue to be produced with each film release. Those will primarily be sent to Europe and Latin America, which are converting more slowly than the United States, he said. Any remaining prints not needed overseas may be offered "on a case-by-case basis" to theaters in this country.
Corcoran said that the Jan. 1 cutoff date may be shifted depending on the vagaries of the market in Latin America and Europe. But he added that conversion is inevitable and coming soon. "It will come to a time, a certain point, that the movie distributor decides it's unprofitable to release on film," he said.
Corcoran said one option for cash-strapped cinemas is to lease, rather than buy, a camera. Another option is to convert to nonprofit status and try to get grants available to nonprofits.
The Mansfield Drive-In, the state's only other first-run drive-in, will not close. It was the first drive-in in New England to install a digital projection system, in the winter of 2011-2012.
Michael Jungden — who has owned the theater since 1991 and, before that, worked there for 17 years — compared the "go digital or go dark" situation to his business situation in 1985, when converting from single-screen to multi-screen saved him.
"That was a very difficult time as well. ... That was the year they ran cable TV in town for the first time. We moved two more screens into the theater. We went from one to three screens and had to build a new projection booth on top of an existing building," Jungden said. "There were half a dozen drive-ins within 25 miles of here. All went out of business except us."
Jungden said his theater is relatively healthy financially because he adds to his income with a flea market on Sunday mornings. "You've got to diversify," he said. "That's the only way to go."
As for the digital upgrade money? "I have a very good relationship with my bank," Jungden said.
Southington Drive-In, not a first-run house, shows classic films on summer weekends. The drive-in is owned by the town of Southington.
"We are showing in digital format now. ... Our films are digitally downloaded to an iPad and transferred through three simultaneously synced digital projectors," said Michael Riccio, head of the town's drive-in committee. "I'm not sure it's exactly the same as studios are releasing for new films ... but we don't show first-run films. We should be OK."
Small, independently owned theaters are most at risk in the digital conversion. Cinestudio, the 44-year-old art-house cinema at Trinity College in Hartford, had its own go-digital-or-go-dark scare last year. It was solved with an aggressive fundraising campaign. The nonprofit movie theater raised $200,000 from audiences, supporters and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to go not just top-of-the-line digital but also high-def.
Real Art Ways in Hartford, which shows movies using a Blu-ray player, is also raising money for conversion.
L.B. Munoz, vibe manager at Real Art Ways, said the theater will begin a capital campaign in the winter to raise $100,000 for digital conversion. The theater shows a lot of ultra-low-budget indie movies, which are handled by small distributors, who themselves will not be digital-ready by Jan. 1. These distributors will continue to send Blu-ray movies to Real Art Ways for a while.
The first drive-in movie theater opened in 1933. Popularity of the theaters reached their peak in 1958, when 4,000 to 5,000 were in operation nationwide. Fewer than 357 drive-ins are in operation today in the United States.
D. Edward Vogel, a Baltimore-based theater owner who is administrative secretary of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, said theaters have been told for about six years that conversion needed to be done.
"Pleasant Valley is not one of our members, unfortunately," Vogel said. "We've helped a lot of our members get through this."
UDITOA has about 150 members, Vogel said.
Donations to help Pleasant Valley Drive-in can be sent c/o Allison Roy, TD Bank, 200 New Hartford Road, Winsted 06098. The theater already has raised $1,000.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun