GREENE COUNTY — Honda’s Project Drive-in has come and gone, and two local drive-ins are still left with the $80,000 price tag of digital conversion.
The Greenville Drive-in and Coxsackie’s Hi-Way Drive-in both participated in the vote-based contest, which awarded nine theaters around the country a full digital upgrade.
The switch from 35mm projectors to digital models is seen as life or death for movie theaters as major Hollywood studios vow to end 35mm production by the end of this year. The conversion is hitting drive-ins particularly hard, as their short seasons and low margins make the investment difficult.
The contest’s nine winners were located in Oregon, Michigan, Texas, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida.
“It would have been helpful,” said Roger Babcock, owner of the Hi-Way. “I cannot believe that not one single drive-in in New York even came close.”
The Hi-Way showed its final film of the season last Sunday, closing after Columbus Day weekend as usual. Its four screens will mean about $300,000 for conversion, including renovating the projector rooms. Old 35mm projectors are fairly sturdy; the rooms are basically cinder block boxes without heat, insulation or air conditioning. Digital projectors will need all of those things and more.
Losing the contest is not the end for the Hi-Way. Babcock said the drive-in has been approved for a $300,000 loan through a bank, but they haven’t yet decided if they want to “pull the trigger” on the purchase.
“The contest was just a little bit of a sidetrack there for a while, but I think it did what it was supposed to do,” he said. “It made people aware of the plight of the drive-in and also, I believe, taught a few people how to support their drive-ins a little bit better.”
How does one support the drive-in better? Buy that extra large popcorn.
Hollywood studios get a major percentage of the box office, sometimes more than 90 percent for first-runs. Local drive-ins generally try to keep prices low, so they don’t make much there.
The real money comes from concessions — those foil-wrapped hamburgers and hot-dogs, bags of Sour Patch Kids and butter-drenched buckets of popcorn.
“That’s part of the whole drive-in experience,” said Babcock. “And that’s how we pay our bills.”
Project Drive-in sets the deadline to save drive-ins at Dec. 31, but Babcock hasn’t heard anything that concrete from movie studios, despite the general, looming threat that this will be the final year of 35mm.
“I haven’t gotten anything definite from anybody,” he said.
Last year, he said, Fox Films said they’d stop producing 35mm after September.
“And yet I played an awful lot of Fox Films this year in 35mm,” said Babcock. “So even though they’re giving us deadlines, they’re not holding to them. A lot of drive-ins are going to hold right out to the absolute end.”
If the Hi-Way decides to pull the trigger on the expense, Babcock said they’d likely be installing between January and March next year.
The situation is more uncertain at the Greenville Drive-in, which has one screen and closed a few weeks before the Hi-Way due to declining attendance. But operator Ed Spannagel is not giving up.
“We quietly closed and I started thinking about how we’re going to swing this digital thing,” he said.
Spannagel is working on a few plans to raise the $80,000 over the winter. If all else fails, there is still an option of running old 35mm films — if they can get them at reasonable prices, and if anyone wants to see them. A lot of the distribution costs of first-run films, like shipping, are subsidized by the movie studios. But the old films wouldn’t come with such support.
“The good news is those 35mm films are still there,” he said. “So as long as we’re still able to get access to them, technically speaking, we could still run older films next year once 35 is done being produced.”
“A potential problem could be everyone else that hasn’t converted to digital, the only option is to do the same thing. So there could be a run on old movies, so the struggle with movies could start all over again just because everyone’s trying to stay in business. It’s going to be an interesting couple of months.”
According to Project Drive-in, more than 2.5 million people voted in the contest. “Nine drive-ins saved,” the website reads. “140 more to go.”
Honda is now running a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo to support drive-ins. The campaign has raised more than $53,000 so far. Contributions can be made at www.projectdrivein.com.
To reach reporter Kyle Adams, call 518-943-2100, ext. 3323, or e-mail email@example.com.