SACO – Saco Drive-In manager Ry Russell doesn’t mince words when he talks about what it means to be featured in a Honda promotional campaign highlighting America’s endangered drive-in theaters.

“This is the golden ticket to help us save the drive-in,” Russell said Thursday, just before a camera crew arrived to film footage of the 74-year-old theater for “Project Drive-In.”

Set to launch in August, the online campaign will allow voters to choose their favorite drive-in theater. The five with the most votes will get a digital projection system, a costly upgrade that many aging theaters are struggling to make as movie companies phase out the use of 35 mm film reels that most drive-ins are equipped for.

Theater operators say they don’t know exactly when the distribution of film reels will stop, but they expect it this year.

The Saco theater, the second-oldest drive-in in the country, will close after this season unless it raises $90,000, or wins Honda’s promotional contest, Russell said. A local fundraising campaign so far has raised $10,000 toward the project, which includes improvements to the projection room as well as a new digital projector.

“(Honda is) doing something that is really going to save five businesses,” Russell said. “In the long run, if the Saco Drive-In is not one of the five, it does bring recognition to this dilemma drive-ins across the country are facing.”

Jessica Fini, a spokesman for Honda, said it seemed natural for a car company to support drive-in theaters, which she called “a piece of nostalgia that would be a shame to lose. … A lot of them are family-owned businesses that have been part of the community for a really long time.”

The Saco Drive-In was one of the first to be visited by a camera crew for the Web video, and Honda had not yet formally unveiled the campaign.

The Saco Drive-In opened in 1939 and has become a beloved landmark in the community. Like many other people who grew up in the area, Justin Chenette remembers piling into the car with his family to watch a double-feature. Chenette, a Democratic state representative, is helping Russell with fundraising events, including a giant yard sale on Saturday.

“The drive-in, for me, is one of the centers of the greater Saco community,” Chenette said. “When I think of Saco, I think of grabbing a burger at Rapid Ray’s and going to the drive-in.”

Russell said the Saco Drive-In is one of hundreds of theaters struggling to stay above water and make the investment in new equipment.

While most indoor theaters have already made the switch, only about 10 percent of the country’s 606 drive-in theaters have, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Fini said Honda isn’t releasing many details about Project Drive-In until it launches, but did say one of the goals is to involve the community in saving theaters. “Our goal is to raise awareness to save this part of Americana,” she said.

Russell was already getting the word out about the campaign on Thursday by inviting people to come to the drive-in to be part of the footage. The drive-in’s Facebook page has around 20,400 fans, an essential part of engaging the community in saving the theater, he said.

“The community is really coming out and showing their support. It’s huge,” said Russell, who also is a social media consultant. “We have one of the largest followings on Facebook for drive-ins in the country.”

Russell and Chenette both said they hope that fan base – and their online votes – will help propel the Saco Drive-In to success in the Honda project. If the drive-in does win a projection system, Russell said, he will be able to help other drive-in theaters in Maine. After the Saco project is complete, he would divide leftover donated money between any of those theaters that are trying to make the digital conversion.

“If we can get this (projector), it’s a done deal,” Chenette said. “We would have saved a piece of Saco history and a piece of this community.”

 

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@mainetoday.com