How the switch to digital might kill the last few drive-ins

The movie industry's switch from traditional 35 mm film to digital saves money for studios. But the move can be prohibitively expensive for America's remaining drive-ins.

The number of drive-ins in America has dwindled from over 4,000 in the 1960s to about 360 today. With the help of paint jobs, updated concession stands, additional screens, and other renovations, some have actually been thriving, causing traffic jams and having to turn cars away.

But these last few are facing a new threat: digital projector prices. Businessweek reports.

By the end of this year, Hollywood distributors are expected to stop producing movies in traditional 35 millimeter film and switch entirely to digital. The digital push is good for moviegoers who like crisp, shiny blockbusters and for the Hollywood studios who make them; it costs over $1,000 to print one 35 mm film copy, compared to the $100 it takes to release a digital version on an encrypted hard drive.

About 76 percent of all screens worldwide have already been upgraded. In the U.S., it's closer to 90 percent.

But a single projector could cost $75,000 to $100,000. That's prohibitively expensive for the majority of America’s last remaining drive-ins, which are still family-owned and seasonally operated. Some of them are using the same 35 mm projectors that were installed half a century ago -- and which are still running smoothly.

Only 150 drive-ins have converted so far. The other couple hundred have until the end of the year to switch -- or go out of business.

Honda has launched a campaign to help save them. They’ll give away five digital projectors to the establishments that get the most votes on its Project Drive-In website.

Art houses and indie film theaters are also struggling with the conversion. Some theaters have installed digital projectors alongside the old ones (kept for repertory films). But while the upgrade has allowed them to expand offerings, the decreased production cost of digital hasn’t translated to savings for theaters. Turns out, for some theaters at least, it’s just as expensive to license a movie as it ever was.

[Bloomberg Businessweek]

Image: inflatable screen drive-in / J. Fang

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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