Sunday, January 20, 2013

Drive-In Movies Nearly Extinct as Studios Move to Stop Distributing 35-Millimeter Prints

I can't remember the last time I saw a movie at a drive-in, but it's pretty cool that they're still around. Maybe not much longer, though.

At the Los Angeles Times, "Drive-in theaters facing a digital demise":
As the night grew darker, a cold wind whipped across the asphalt expanse of the vintage Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre in Riverside. A howling gust banged open the door to the snack bar, where hot dogs glistened on metal spits and the black-and-white linoleum floor gleamed.

Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" flickered to life on the colossal screen — for an audience of eight cars.

This time of year is always slow at drive-in theaters, which have been struggling with declining attendance for decades. But it's not just cold weather that has made this a winter of discontent. The digital revolution is here, and that could mean lights out for many of the nation's 368 surviving drive-ins.

Hollywood is expected to stop distributing 35-millimeter film prints to all U.S. theaters later this year. The vast majority of indoor theaters — hardtops, in drive-in lingo — have already converted to digital projectors, but 90% of drive-ins have not, according to an industry trade group. Conversion costs of $70,000 or more per screen could be too expensive for many drive-ins.

The Rubidoux plans to convert to digital projection, but its owner says the switch will be a struggle for many others.

"There's been panic, definitely," Frank Huttinger said. "Ma and pop outfits, second- or third-generation places, are hesitant to put up all that money."

The drive-in market today is a shell of what it was in the late 1950s, when teens and big families in big cars found drive-ins a fun alternative to indoor theaters. At their peak, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins, accounting for 25% of the nation's movie screens. Today, that's down to 1.5%.

By the late 1980s, more than three-quarters of American drive-ins had closed as multiplexes proliferated. Urban sprawl and soaring land values led many to be bulldozed to make way for malls and other commercial developments.

The drive-ins that survived have been doing better in the last decade, spurred partly by cost-conscious families who can see double features or first-run movies at half the price of the hardtops, said National Assn. of Theatre Owners spokesman Patrick Corcoran.

For younger audiences, there's the chance to travel back in time.

"My car's pretty roomy, and it's chill to sit there together," said Casey Welch, 19, who was at the Rubidoux Drive-In with girlfriend Jonnie Byrd.
"It's chill to sit here." That would have been "boss man," in an earlier era. Fascinating though.

More at that top link.