Nearly 275 cars piled in the Ocala Drive-In Thursday afternoon, hauling lawn chairs, blankets and families to bask in the nostalgia offered. An American tradition was officially here to stay, at least in Marion county.
The Ocala Drive-In was one of nine outdoor theaters across the nation to receive a free digital projection system from American Honda Motor Co., through its Project Drive‐In initiative. A free screening of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” was shown thanks to Honda’s partnership with Sony Pictures on the project.
More than 2.6 million votes were cast nationwide to determine who would win the $80,000 projection systems, according to the project’s website,.
Many traditional drive-in projectors require a film printed on 35mm movie reel. The film companies don’t want to to pay around $1,500 to $2,000 per theater to produce 35mm prints for new movies and spend even more to ship them to theaters and multiplexes across the country.
Roughly 90 percent of the drive-ins still in operation rely on this old-fashioned projector, said Kipp Sherer, co-founder of Drive-Ins.com, a site tracking issues related to drive-in theaters.
The expectation is for all theaters to figure out how to go digital, which is an issue for most mom and pop drive-in theaters. Many do not have upwards of $100,000 to spare for the conversion, according to digitalprojection.com.
Ocala Drive-in owner John Watzke, said he wanted to keep the family tradition of going to the drive-in alive.
A shift toward digital
D. Edward Vogel, former administrative secretary for the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, said that the film companies have not made an ultimatum for the end of traditional reel film, rather a recommendation.
“The film companies have made no official date of the end of film,” Vogel said.
The film industries offered financial assistance for indoor theaters to convert to digital, but not for outdoor, Sherer said. The industries are more interested in theaters with multiple screens to invest their time and money in rather than ones with a single big screen, which most drive-ins feature.
“When you look at the cost per screen in terms of dollars, it makes sense why [the industries] would do that though, but I don’t agree,” Sherer said.
Back in their prime in 1958, over 4,000 drive-ins ran across the United States, but currently, only around 350 are left operating, according to Drive-Ins.com.
Some would suggest popularity to be the main issue for drive‐ins, but author Kerry Segrave saw the real issue at hand in 1993: the land values.
In her book “Drive-In Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933″ Segrave wrote about Roger Corman, who was considered “King of the Drive-In Movie” at the time, claiming that the drive‐ins were not declining because of lack of popularity by customers but because of land values.
“It has become more practical to turn drive-ins into shopping centers,” he said.
Twenty years later, it’s still the same case.
Sherer said that many owners originally bought land on the outskirts of towns and cities to make outdoor cinemas because of the cheap land.
“With the expansions of cities and even small towns, that cheap land becomes expensive commodities that could be sold for more than triple the amount paid,” he said.
It’s just economically more efficient to close down a drive-in theater and make a mall in its place, Segrave wrote.
The convenience of air-conditioned indoor theaters, DVRs and Netflix will continue to threaten one of America’s oldest pastimes, Sherer said.
“Drive-ins today sit poised on the edge of extinction,” wrote Kerry Segrave, concluding her book. “The last handful may be around yet for decades.”
“A few may be kept alive as sort of living museums, perhaps subsidized. But they are as a part of the American landscape. New ones will never be built. It is only a matter of time.”