Henderson drive-in theater raising money for digital projector

acurliss@newsobserver.comDecember 26, 2013 

A drive-in movie theater in Henderson, about an hour north of Raleigh, is hoping to survive with a crowd-funding campaign to purchase a new digital projector.

The effort, if successful, would replace the current film projector, which dates to the time of the Korean War, as movie studios signal the end is near for producing and showing movies on film. The switch from film to digital has been a particular challenge for independent theaters in smaller towns, especially drive-ins.

Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre, one of seven outdoor drive-in screens in North Carolina, is hoping to raise $65,000 by Feb. 8 so that it can make the switch.

The Honda Co. spotlighted the Henderson drive-in and dozens of others earlier this year in a contest that, based on public voting online, awarded digital projectors to nine drive-ins across the country. Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre wasn’t one of them.

The drive-in’s effort continues with the new campaign at indiegogo.com, a crowd-funding website.

The drive-in has been open since 1949 and current owners Mark and Jennifer Frank say that a digital projector “will ensure the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre continues showing movies for another 64 years.” The theater is the state’s oldest drive-in, according to the Franks

The money would cover the costs of the digital projector hardware and software, servers, battery backup systems, 6,500-watt light bulbs, lenses designed specifically for outdoor showings and other costs associated with the transition to digital.

About half the nation’s roughly 350 drive-ins have converted to digital projectors, said John Vincent, president of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. More than 90 percent of indoor theater can show digital films. Most moviegoers see little difference between the two formats, but digital has allowed studios to save money and offer wide-release of three-dimension movies.

Vincent said the change has been positive for drive-ins; the picture shown on the screen is “twice as bright” and the “consistency is much, much better.”

A community institution?

But he said the cost has been difficult to manage for some theater owners, especially locally owned “mom and pop” operations.

Mark Frank said he bought the drive-in two years ago at a time when the end of film wasn’t as certain. He spent money on other improvements, such as the concession stand and a children’s playground, and wants to avoid borrowing or raising ticket prices to cover the cost of the digital projector.

He knows that many view the drive-in as a community institution, and so he hoped the online money raising effort would spark such aid.

He said it’s not clear when the studios will stop shipping on film completely, though Paramount has said it’s going all digital from now on.

A message to customers on the Website for the Henderson drive-in says “we have to convert to digital projection by early spring.” The Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre money raising effort at indiegogo also highlights a “go digital or go dark” forecast.

“There’s no certain deadline, but I like to tell people it’s like the switch from VCRs to DVDs,” Frank said. “In the last year, this has gone from not a problem to a major problem. The number of film copies is going to be smaller and smaller and so we have to make the switch.”

Frank said drive-ins like his are typically at a disadvantage for absorbing larger one-time costs. Unlike an indoor theater, drive-ins are more seasonal and usually operate on the weekends. Frank said about 80 percent of his annual business is in the summer months.

Vincent, who leads the trade association and owns a drive-in in Massachusetts, said it is unclear how many drive-ins – or small town indoor theaters – will close as a result of the transition to digital projection. There will be some, he said.

“Unfortunately, that will happen,” he said. He said some new financing options might assist in keeping some of those theaters in most peril from closing.

Vincent also said it is not clear when the major studios will completely stop producing movies on film. It had been expected by the end of 2013, but that is now more likely to occur sometime next year, he said.

“This is something we’ve all known was coming for about the past 10 years,” he said. “I’m frankly surprised it lasted this long.”

Curliss: 919-829-4840; Twitter: @acurliss

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