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.