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article imageDigital projection killing drive-in theatres

By Sarah Lucas     Jan 22, 2013 in Business
Drive-in theatres could be all but extinct in the US by the end of the year, when Hollywood plans to discontinue the distribution of 35-millimeter film prints to American theatres.
iTunes downloads may be cheaper and deliver high-definition to living rooms in a matter of seconds, but when it comes to an evening of cinema, there remains something alluring about driving to an inconvenient location and enjoying the blotchy sound and popcorn-circling insects of a drive-in theatre.
The drive-in theatre experience, however, could be all but extinct in the US by the end of the year, when Hollywood plans to discontinue the distribution of 35-millimeter film prints to American theatres. According to Screen Digest, the distribution of film prints will cease in the US by the end of 2013, with global cutoff likely by the end of 2015.
Hollywood films are increasingly shot as digital images rather than on film. Film consumers prefer the higher quality of digital projection, which is not only free of the flickering and scratches that can reduce the quality of traditional film projection, but also makes increasingly-popular 3D projection possible. Film distributors also favour digital because it does not require the production of film prints, which may cost as much as $2,000 for each print distributed to a cinema.
The only partial losers in the digital revolution are the cinemas, which face the cost of conversion to the new format. For indoor theatres, whose revenues have been boosted by the growth of the 3D film market, the average conversion cost of $70,000 is manageable. At the end of 2012, 70% of indoor theatres had already made the switch to digital, according to Cinedigm Digital.
But for drive-ins, the conversion cost is likely to be prohibitive. Drive-in theatres have suffered a gradual decline in profitability since their heydey in the 1950s and early 1960s, when 25% of screens in the US were drive-ins. At the height of their popularity, drive-ins were multi-acre facilities catering to thousands of cars, and often offered special attractions such as petting zoos, appearances by film stars and runways for small aircraft. The 2,500-car drive-in at Copiague, Long Island, featured a trolley system to take guests from their cars to a giant indoor playground.
As prices for large properties boomed in the 1970s and 1980s, however, the economics of real estate began working against drive-in theatres. Large properties became too valuable to be dedicated to seasonal activities such as drive-ins, which were usually only open in summertime. At the same time, colour televisions flooded American households and the widespread adoption of Daylight Saving Time in the 1970s meant outdoor theatres had to adopt later and less popular session times. Many were forced to close, and today only 1.5% of screens (150 screens in total) in the US are drive-ins.
The switch to digital will be too expensive for many outdoor theatres, Frank Huttinger, an owner of Rubidoux vintage drive-ins in California, told the [i]LA Times[/i] this week. Rubidoux plans to convert, but Huttinger predicted that smaller outfits will find doing so difficult. "There's been panic, definitely," he told the Times. "Ma and pop outfits, second- or third-generation places, are hesitant to put up all that money".
As Kelly Seagrave writes in her 1993 book, Drive-in Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933, it appears that the only future for drive-ins is as living museums. "Drive-ins today”, she writes “sit poised on the edge of extinction. 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 finished as a part of the American landscape. New ones will never be built”.
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