February 14, 2013

Dark hour for drive-ins facing a shift to digital

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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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

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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

About 150 people donated a total of $50,000, just enough to buy the digital projection equipment that will be installed this spring.

Though the money has been raised, Sheckley is worried about the future of independent theaters.

"I don't know if it's a blessing or a curse to be able to convert the theater," he said. "We think a good number of theaters are going to go out of business because of this."

Sheckley is reluctant to move away from film, which he now plays with carbon arc projectors from the 1930s. With that setup, he can show both old and new films -- something that will end when he makes the conversion.

"I'm not impressed with the way digital looks," said Sheckley, a longtime projectionist. "I think the digital has been forced on theaters because it's something to save money for the businesses that run the studios."

Audiences at the Nickelodeon in downtown Portland may not have noticed the cinema's digital conversion, but staff members noticed "a huge difference in clarity, contrast and brightness of color," said Assistant Manager Ben Howard.

And there's no longer any worry about the film breaking, he said. The theater, part of the Patriot Cinemas group, completed the conversion for all six screens in three days in December.

"It was kind of a convert-or-die situation," Howard said. "It's the way forward. It was a lot for some of us to learn, but now that we have it all set up, the advantages are clear."

Russell, from the 74-year-old Saco Drive-In, said he is confident that people who have long connections to the theater will help keep the tradition alive.

Taking out a business loan isn't an option because it would be difficult to cover loan payments while running the theater, which doesn't turn a profit, he said.

In addition to buying digital projection equipment, Russell must alter the projection booth to make sure it is climate-controlled.

Russell is using Facebook -- where the drive-in has more than 16,000 fans -- to rally support. Donations are accepted through the Facebook page, and Russell said there will likely be fundraising events, such as bake sales and an all-day concert. So far, he has raised $1,900 toward his $75,000 goal.

While he is focused primarily on keeping the theater open, Russell also is collecting families' stories about their experiences at the drive-in. Many of the stories about family bonding, nights out with friends and traditions passed down through generations bring him to tears, he said.

"It will kill me if I have to close," he said. "There will be a 'closed' sign on the door if we don't make this happen."

 

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

ggraham@pressherald.com

Twitter: grahamgillian

 

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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

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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



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