February 14, 2013

Dark hour for drive-ins facing a shift to digital

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SACO – It's do-or-die time for the Saco Drive-In.

click image to enlarge

In this July 2011 file photo, cars are lined up to watch the latest Harry Potter movies at the Saco Drive-In. As movie studios move away from 35 mm film and firmly into the digital age, the nation's second-oldest drive-in theater faces the prospect of being left behind.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

20130212_DriveIn
click image to enlarge

Ry Russell, who runs the Saco Drive-In, says this old film projector that has to be replaced with a digital projector at the cost of about $90,000 if the theater is to survive. Photographed on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

As movie studios move away from 35 mm film and firmly into the digital age, the nation's second-oldest drive-in theater faces the prospect of being left behind.

Without a digital conversion that could cost as much as $90,000, the drive-in theater will have to retire its giant screen, said Ry Russell, the Saco native who runs the summer theater.

Faced with the "heartbreaking" prospect of closing the theater, which opened in 1939, Russell said he is turning to the community for help in saving a local landmark.

"This is a lot bigger than this theater," Russell said. "This is one of 10,000 theaters struggling to stay above water."

Movie studios plan to stop producing the large reels of 35 mm film that theaters like the Saco Drive-In have used for decades. Theater operators say they don't know exactly when the distribution of film reels will stop, but they expect it will happen this year.

While larger, chain-operated movie theaters have already converted to digital, many small independent theaters now face a deadline to move away from film and into digital technology. That's a challenge for them because the new equipment costs tens of thousands of dollars.

"Larger theaters converted to digital a few years ago," said John Tevanian, owner of the Bridgton Twin Drive-In. "Once they did that, the writing was on the wall: If you plan on being in this business for more than a year or two, you have to convert to digital."

Tevanian has started converting his two-screen drive-in, but said the entire process will take until next year. This year, he is constructing a new building to house the digital equipment he plans to have by the start of the 2014 season.

He estimates that the conversion will cost $130,000 -- plus at least that much for the new building. He is confident that he will be able to get movies on 35 mm film for all of this season, which runs from spring to early fall.

Tevanian said 83 percent of the movie screens in the country have already been converted, and 90 percent are expected to be digital by the end of this year.

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

Digital cinema provides consistent quality and is less expensive to produce and distribute, according to the association.

The conversion is expensive and may not be the wisest investment, Tevanian said, but he couldn't just walk away from the drive-in that his father bought 40 years ago.

Fans of the Bridgton Twin Drive-In have offered to help raise money, but Tevanian said the best way they could help was by buying movie tickets. He turned down offers of donations and fundraisers.

"If I was going to stay in business, that meant I was all in," he said. "When I made the announcement on my Facebook page last year, I said to the folks (that) a sane person would look at the numbers and walk away. Sometimes you do things that perhaps economically aren't the smartest move, but you only live once."

The operators of the Prides Corner Drive-In in Westbrook could not be reached for comment.

The Saco Drive-In isn't the only Maine theater to ask for community help to cover the cost.

Jason Sheckley, owner of the Harbor Theatre in Boothbay Harbor, turned to the community to help with the one-screen theater's digital conversion.

Open since 2002, the independent theater is a "labor of love" that doesn't turn a profit, Sheckley said.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors


Additional Photos

20130212_DriveIn
click image to enlarge

Ry Russell, who runs the Saco Drive-In, says this old film projector that has to be replaced with a digital projector at the cost of about $90,000 if the theater is to survive. Photographed on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

20130212_DriveIn
click image to enlarge

Here, dozens of short films and cartoons, that are usually shown before the main feature, sit on a work bench next to the theater's old-fashioned film reels.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

20130212_DriveIn
click image to enlarge

Old-fashioned 35 mm film reels at the Saco Drive-In theater. Like many drive-ins and old movie theaters, if the Saco Drive-In doesn't make the $90,000 switch to digital, it will likely have to shutter.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer



Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)


 

Blogs

The Golden Dish - TODAY
Lamb stew for spring

More PPH Blogs