Already an endangered species, the drive-in theater as facing its biggest threat ever from the drive by movie studios to change over to all digital projection in the coming years.
One of the most expensive parts of releasing a film – outside of the budget, of course – is producing thousands of 35mm prints. A film takes numerous reels, and then you have shipping to contend with, the eventual destruction of the prints and so on. Digital projection not only produces a better picture, and a copy of the film that can't wear out, but it also can be placed on a device about the size of a portable hard drive and then downloaded into the projectors. Eventually even that will be gone and theaters will download encrypted files meaning the physical aspect is totally removed.
The problem is that for a theater to convert to a digital projector make sure it can handle the future is that it costs around $70,000 per screen to do the conversion. From the height of their popularity in the 1950s when there were more than 4,000 drive-ins, there are now around a mere 350 left according to the Associated Press. All of them are now facing a tough decision to either upgrade or be forced to close eventually as they will no longer have access to the latest films.
There is an industry program that will reimburse theater owners 80 percent of the cost over time, but they are still responsible for the funds up front. As one can imagine, most small businesses don't have that kind of money just sitting around. These costs also don't take into account that their projection booths will now need to be climate controlled to take care of the new equipment.
Different drive-ins are trying to raise funds in different ways by doing things such as holding raffles, but many of them are still in danger. The Honda car company has launched a new contest called ProjectDriveIn which will allow people to vote for their drive-ins and the car company will award five locations with the digital projectors that they need.
Personally, I don't know why drive-ins have had such a rough go of it. Considering the hassles of going to a movie these days, I like the idea of just sitting in my own car to watch a movie. Sure they can't show films all day long like your nearest cineplex can, there's something to be said about seeing a film in the way you want. Want to text? Go right ahead, the light of your phone won't bother anyone. Want to talk to the other people in your car without being yelled at? Go for it. There's a lot to be said for the drive-in experience, and I hope that it is one that can survive.