JEFFERSON — Drive-in movie theaters use the pull of nostalgia to bring in customers, but when the Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre opens this weekend, it will be on the cutting edge of technology.
Owner Lee Burgess had a digital projector installed in the small cement-block building that has been showing films since 1953 and opens for the season on Friday. Only three other U.S. drive-ins have digital projectors. The Highway 18 is one of two more that are installing one this spring.
“It’s a brave new world,” said Burgess, who has owned the theater since 1999.
Digital projection has become a huge issue in the movie theater business. Studios are trying to get away from the expense of creating 35-millimeter films to distribute to theaters and instead ship a small hard drive to theater owners to install on a server.
“If you really want to be in the business of showing everything new that comes out, you will have to do this,” said John Vincent, president of the United Drive-In Theatres Association.
About half the 39,000 indoor theaters in the U.S. have converted, most in theaters owned by chains. In the Madison area, half of AMC Star Fitchburg’s 18 screens use digital projections, and those owned by Marcus Theatres use digital projection for 3D and special events, such as live Metropolitan Opera performances.
“I hate to say it, but I think half the drive-ins aren’t going to survive because of it,” Burgess said. “Half of them are just getting by as it is.”
Approximately 400 drive-in theaters remain in the U.S.
Burgess spent more than $75,000 to make the conversion. Besides the cost of equipment, Burgess also had to fix his projection room to handle the new technology. The film projector beamed the picture out of portholes, but now those have been sealed tight and the movie will be shown through a window.
Many drive-ins have to make those kinds of changes to convert to digital, Vincent said.
“Some of the drive-ins that have three, four or five screens are being projected out of sheds like the ones you can buy at Home Depot,” Vincent said. “With digital, you have to keep the dust out and many of the drive-ins have dirt parking lots.”
Burgess also had to add air-conditioning and improve ventilation and security.
“I seriously considered just operating for another two or three years till film goes away and then shut the place down,” said Burgess, 62. “Instead, I’m biting the bullet and pretty much committing to keeping this place open for another 10 years.”
Burgess said with fewer prints already in the market in recent years, he was having a hard time finding first-run films he wanted. When he was able to get them, he had to keep them longer than he wanted to.
“As the studios make fewer prints, they’re demanding stiffer terms,” Burgess said. “I used to be able to turn over a blockbuster movie every two or three weeks. Now the studios are saying I have to keep it four to six weeks. If your season is the 14 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you have to turn over films or you’re dead.”
Now with the lower cost to the studio of delivering a hard drive instead of film, Burgess hopes to negotiate better terms.
Burgess purchased a Barco DP2K-32B and spent a week in California learning how to operate and troubleshoot the equipment. Many theaters go through a third party to install and maintain equipment.
Many also go through a third party to finance the digital conversion. Those transactions include a “virtual print fee,” which acts as a rebate to the theaters based on money the studios saved by not making a print. Each print costs the studio approximately $1,000.
Burgess passed on that kind of financial assistance because of some of the restrictions and bureaucracy that came with it.
In previous years, Burgess would pick up the film at a distribution depot in Waukegan, Ill., then splice it together in his projection room. Each film took about an hour and the process would have to be reversed to send it back.
Now, the movie arrives on Wednesday via UPS for a Friday show. Burgess will download it onto the server, which takes about 20 minutes. He also will receive an encryption key via email that he will download and put into a USB port on the server. The encryption key is essentially the “permission” to show the film for a certain period of time.
“The reason these things are so expensive is because there is so much security,” Burgess said. “Studios are so afraid of piracy.”
The projector is lit with a 6,500-watt bulb. The picture travels 255 feet from the projector to the 90-foot screen.
Burgess will keep a film projector around as a backup for the first week and for the pre-show entertainment such as the venerable dancing hot dogs. Those images are on film.
Most movie-goers won’t notice a big difference, Burgess said.
They’ll see a brighter picture, and one that doesn’t distort from the center to the edges of the screen.
Opening weekend at the Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre will be a double feature of “Rango” and “True Grit.” Then it will be first-run films with “Thor” scheduled to run beginning May 6.