SACO – Maine’s oldest drive-in movie theater has been rescued by a social media campaign.

The 74-year-old Saco Drive-In was named Wednesday as a winner in a national contest that will provide it with a new digital projection system.

The drive-in had faced closure without the digital conversion, like many other drive-ins nationwide. So Saco Drive-In manager Ry Russell launched a Facebook campaign to mobilize fans to vote in a Web-based contest sponsored by Honda.

The automaker’s Project Drive-In contest will provide digital projectors to the five theaters that get the most votes from supporters. Saco Drive-In, the second-oldest in the country, is the first winner.

Russell said it’s proof of the community’s dedication to the theater and the power of bringing people together through social media.

“I cried like a little girl. It’s totally surreal,” Russell said. “The drive-in is so much bigger than just a small business or anything I’ve put into it. It’s an escape for families from the financial difficulties everyone is facing today. For me to be a part of preserving that is a feeling like no other. It feels like we’ve accomplished a lot more today than just saving the drive-in.”

Many of the country’s roughly 400 drive-in theaters face closure as the movie industry switches from film reels to digital technology, requiring theaters to invest about $80,000 each for new projection systems, according to Honda.

The Saco Drive-In launched its own fundraising campaign earlier this year, but fell far short of the amount needed to buy a projector.

Other Maine drive-ins are trying to make the digital conversion and avoid extinction. The state has five drive-ins, in Saco, Westbrook, Bridgton, Skowhegan and Madawaska.

Some operators have said they are trying to raise money for digital projectors, but it’s uncertain how many will survive the film industry’s conversion, which is expected to happen at the end of this year.

The Prides Corner Drive-In on Route 302 in Westbrook, which opened in 1953, also participated in Project Drive-In.

Honda will announce the remaining four winners this week. A sixth theater will receive a digital projector paid for with donations collected as part of the campaign, said Honda spokeswoman Jessica Fini.

More than 2 million votes were cast on the Internet in the past month, but Honda is not disclosing the number of votes the Saco Drive-In received.

“I honestly think social media is the reason why we won,” Russell said. “We probably had a very significant disadvantage. We are a small, seasonal theater in a small state.”

During the past month, Russell posted every day on the Saco Drive-In’s Facebook page, asking supporters to vote. The page has more than 26,000 followers, and Russell said some of his posts were shared as many as 500 times.

“This is a good example of what you can do with social media. This was a long shot, but it shows how tight-knit Maine communities can be,” said Justin Chenette, a Saco native who has helped Russell in his effort to save the drive-in. “The community rallied behind this. We’ve saved a piece of our cultural history and an important job generator.”

Russell said the new projector will enable the Saco Drive-In to open next year for its 75th season. The theater was called the Motor-In Theatre when it was opened in 1939 by an Italian immigrant, Eugene V. Boragine. Its first feature was “Forbidden Music,” starring Jimmy Durante, and a ticket for an adult cost 35 cents.

Within an hour of Wednesday’s announcement that the drive-in was a winner, more than 600 fans had posted comments expressing their excitement. Thousands more “liked” Russell’s posts and video.

“So glad that everyone pulled together to make this happen! Goes to show if you want something bad enough all you need is a little faith and determination along with some work and things happen,” wrote Jennifer Bruno, who said she voted every day.

The projector will arrive at the theater within weeks. Russell said he will have to make some improvements to the projection booth to make sure it is climate-controlled and secure. He anticipates that on-screen advertisements will help fund those renovations.

“We’ll make that conversion on our dime,” Russell said. “The community has done more than enough.”

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

ggraham@pressherald.com