Drive-ins to go digital?

posted by Patrick Crowley on June 30, 2006 at 6:11 am

The Boston Globe reports that many drive-in theaters are considering a switch to digital:

The owners of the 406 surviving drive-in theaters in the US have long memories: They can recall 10-cent Cokes, B-movies like “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein,” and tail-finned Cadillacs driving off with the speaker still clipped to the window.

And many use the same equipment from the golden age of the double feature: At the Wellfleet Drive-In, for example, the original projector from 1957 is still switched on every summer evening.

The country’s remaining drive-ins, including five in Massachusetts, have managed to endure the onslaught of television, the multiplex, and the VCR, as well as the rising real estate values that can make selling the land beneath a drive-in irresistible. But the newest concern among drive-in owners is the advent of digital projection and the predicted obsolescence of celluloid.

Comments (37)

KenLayton on June 30, 2006 at 6:36 am

More marketing hype for big screen tv.

sdoerr on June 30, 2006 at 6:47 am

It would take away from the experience if they went digital.

It’s different then at a theater, because you look behind you to see it projecting, in the open air to a screen. To me it’s always been something neat and cool to drive-ins

James Colburn
James Colburn on June 30, 2006 at 7:25 am

I agree..sometimes a step forward is a bad thing. Keep them like they are.

Roloff on June 30, 2006 at 11:47 am

There’s also an article about this in July’s issue of Box Office (page 48). Drive-in owners have said that D-Cinema projectors allow them to more easily and evenly light up the large screens (putting a 7K lamp thru film can easilly burn it). The dirty booths also are less of a problem for digital projectors (according to the article) as it is to film. Digital offers a crispy, clean sharp image run after run. Digital projectors can also show alternative content (Other Digital Stuff) like concert shows and sport events…
I can see how it takes away the nostalgic gritty yet comfy grind house quality some drive-ins have, but I can also see how watching live events at a drive-in can enhance the experience..
And do you really go to a drive-in thinking you’ll be seing the picture in it’s best possinle way?

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on June 30, 2006 at 11:53 am

Digital the best thing for drive-ins……big screen crisp pic to compare to tv is an outrage!

vclamp on June 30, 2006 at 12:51 pm

Digital projection may be beyond current power availability at the moment. Not too mention the raw costs that few if any could afford.

A digital screen akin to a plasma TV that could offer daylight screenings would certainly be handy.

Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson on June 30, 2006 at 5:01 pm

digital projection is just that, projection. The image on the screen is coming from the booth in much the same way film is projected. Only there is no film to get dirty or scratched. A computer takes digital pixals and converts them into an image that a Zenon lamphouse can project onto the screen using conventional projection lenses. So from the audience looking back at the booth they would see a stream on light coming out and shining on the screen. The difference is the image is many times sharper, brighter and more even than with film. It is expensive to convert but their are a number of organizations forming to assist with conversion and financing as this is going to be the way films are shown in the very near future. Celuloid is going to disapear period! The industry is looking at 7 to 10 years max.

carolgrau on July 1, 2006 at 9:22 am

Just another way to put projectionist, out of work, there is nothing like running a movie the old way.

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on July 1, 2006 at 3:48 pm

Oh and projectionist have done so much for theater owners……ha

njmoviefan on July 2, 2006 at 7:43 am

“The difference is the image is many times sharper, brighter and more even than with film.”


“Digital the best thing for drive-ins……big screen crisp pic to compare to tv is an outrage!”

This is incorrect. No currently available “digital” system looks as good as a properly projected 35mm print.

PeterApruzzese on July 2, 2006 at 3:17 pm

Interesting thread, longisland. As predicted, there is no good game plan for the implementation of digital in theatres. When theatre owners realize that the studios will be able to control how-when-where they get to screen a movie, there will be a big backlash. That and the fact that the current 2K gear is NOT upgradable, yet 60 year old 35mm gear is!

As of now, digital is non-starter unless the studios absorb all costs of installation. This is only fair since they are the only ones who realize a savings by not making prints.

IanJudge on July 2, 2006 at 4:23 pm

Peter is 100% correct on all counts. And I agree with njmoviefan – properly projected 35mm film (with a quality print) is far superior to digital projection. Of course, you have to have properly trained projectionists who care and well-maintained eqiupment. Many chains today are careless about who starts the show and threads up the machine, and some of the prints today are spit out so fast by the studios that the actual physical quality of prints are just not what they used to be. As for the equipment, well most teenagers in the booth don’t know how to focus a bulb or fine tune the projector regularly like an experienced projectionist, so they don’t even notice the picture is not quite what it could be.

The sad reality is that eventually digital will be forced upon theaters, because that is what the studios want – and it’s their party.

dfc on July 3, 2006 at 5:07 am

I’ve seen cost estimates of +$100k per theater for digital conversion. Isn’t there some kind of a deal in the works where the studios would buy the equipment but the theater owners would pay for the installation?

PeterApruzzese on July 3, 2006 at 5:44 am


No deal that’s been presented to us as far as I know. The studios have floated some plan where we pay for everything and they rebate us the cost over a 10 year period, but they’ve still never even sent anything on paper about it. Vaporware.

The majority of the currrent installations were paid for by Texas Instruments, Kodak and the other digital cinema makers as a way to demo their equipment. With a per-location failure rate hovering just under 10%, these demos aren’t convincing many theatre owners to pay up.

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on July 3, 2006 at 6:20 am

The big screen forum – ROCKY VAUDEVILLE WRITES- “The picture brilliantand perfectly in focus.It was like watching a giant tv screen.There were no hot spots ,even light everywere.No soft focus anywere. I WAS TRULY AMAZES.” This from one of the most respected theater owners in the country.The price is the issue wich i am sure will be addressed.$80,000.00 a screen is the average cost.The projectionist sayvings should offset that over 5 years.There will be no more projectionists rather a service contract company.JMIO

dfc on July 3, 2006 at 7:27 am

I read about digital conversion plans in a year-old Business Week story:

View link

I tried searching Business week for a more current article but couldn’t find one. The failure rate is near 10%, that’s pretty bad but all new technology goes through that at first.

carolgrau on July 5, 2006 at 5:08 am

Projectionist have done allot for theatre owners in the past, my dad was a theatre owner. Myself and others we hired all did our share. You want perfect picture, at the cost of peoples jobs. why don`t you join that asshole in 1600 PA. AVE. I can except change, but not when it hurts others all for the love of a dollar.

dfc on July 5, 2006 at 5:15 am

“You want perfect picture, at the cost of peoples jobs”

I don’t know if a perfectly projected picture will cost anyone their job. But with movie theater patrons shelling out close to $10/ticket, a perfect picture isn’t too much to ask for. Remember, for $15 to $20, they can and are buying DVDs, which can be perfectly viewed at home.

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on July 5, 2006 at 6:48 am

NORELCO-you must have never have worked in a state with union projectionists…

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on July 5, 2006 at 6:55 am

dfc-digital wil cost people there jobs …like you say dvd at home anyone can do it …this is what will happen over the next 5 to 1o years in theaters .Times will be set by the week and start ontime by the computer.

njmoviefan on July 5, 2006 at 7:12 am

“Times will be set by the week and start ontime by the computer. ”

Given the soulless dreck currently poured out every week by Hollywood, this seems appropriate. :)

I can’t wait for one of those computerized operations to crash when there’s a big show. The inability (due to computer control) to hold a show for 5 minutes because of large crowds will be fun to watch…

JodarMovieFan on July 5, 2006 at 9:45 am

Why the digital v film debate here? If drive-in owners feel there is a economic/exhibition benefit to going digital, and it seems that they do, than more power to them. It would be better to have a drive-in showing a digital movie than to have a souless building or parking lot in its space.

carolgrau on July 11, 2006 at 4:56 am

I was a union projectionist for years, did not always agree on everthing they did, but look now, companies can hire you for next to nothing, treat you like garbage, no paid vacation, no holidays paid, and lets not forget health care that we used to get. Greed is the downfall of unions, as well as theatre owners alike. When they took people out of the booth to save money was the end of good showings. Sure the union cost more but I remember when union men would go to different theatres to check on thier comrads, and if you had scratched prints, hot spots, or missed changeovers your ass was hauled before the executive board and you were fined and suspended. We used to try and run perfect movies at all times, because we cared. Then came manager operators, and the scratching and all else began.

carolgrau on July 14, 2006 at 7:04 am

So much for digital, ha ha, what a joke. I have been running movies for Vanderbilt childrens hospital, once or twice a month. They got a huge gym, auditorium setting witch can also do 35mm movies. They recently went digital for Harry Potters Goblet of fire. Midway through the showing a storm hits and knocks out the stupid system. So many kids were heartbroken, but not as much as Vandys executive board when they found out it would cost thousands of dollars to repair. I get a call to come in this weekend to reinstall the good old X-L`s since they decided to go back to film, and scruff the digital sh-t as they call it. What a great day, all theatres should do likewise.

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on July 15, 2006 at 1:58 pm


KenLayton on July 17, 2006 at 4:33 am

Norelco didn’t say the power went out. He said the storm knocked out the video system. Video projectors like the computer that controls it are sensitive to power line spikes/noise and brownouts. The storm probably scrambled/corrurpted/damaged the video system. Probably blew out the main computer control board and power supply I would think. This would certainly not have affected a film projection setup.

In my area of the country, Washington state, any power outages we experience at theaters is usually after 9 pm.

Michael Furlinger
Michael Furlinger on July 17, 2006 at 5:03 am

The point is film or digital will have problems with digital no more film breaks ,platter wraps and so on … Digital will have its problems as well.

logowatches on July 22, 2006 at 12:16 am

Yes, There will be problems but time marches on. Change is hard no matter what it is but it will work out in the end. And I belive for the better.

carolgrau on July 28, 2006 at 6:54 am

Fat chance, I am not going anywhere, I am to dam good.
1. I have been doing this for 50 years.
2. There is not a projector or lamp I have not run, or rebuilt at one time or another.
3. I have done many instalations, as well as equalizing sond in theatre`s, running wires, hooking them up, and everything, to get a booth up and running, as well as putting up screens.
Time will work out as you both said above. Besides there are no unions left that I could go to anyway.
Have a nice day.

logowatches on July 28, 2006 at 7:03 am

My hat is off to you for 50 years of service. I was a radio announcer now it’s voice trx and kids working for 5.00 an hour. I think we both have to adjust with the times and do our best to learn the new way of doing things. Good Luck Jim

carolgrau on August 1, 2006 at 7:29 am

I have learned the new digital shit, don`t like it one bit, but like you say live with it. My brother & I are talking about opening a twin when my recording money comes through. You can bet your bottom dollar it will be film and not this garbage. Film is much more reliable.

logowatches on August 1, 2006 at 8:41 am

Sir I Believe You. I hope You and your brother get to open a Twin Theatre with film. I would chome vist you. Jim

ewokpelts on August 20, 2006 at 7:52 am

Interesting article, as well as debate.

Oneperson suggested a digital “screen” to show movies during the day…it already exists at baseball stadiums…it’s a jumbotron…and some stadiums show movies when the team is on the road…..

I havent been to a drive in in years, but I do want them to survive.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on July 23, 2010 at 5:55 pm

mOvies need to stay in 35mm film;It is movie.You can take it out the cans.hold to light and see a frame of a film.AS much as i hated carrying film cans to the booth I knew I had Clint Eastwood’s latest adventure in my popcorn stained hands.

You must login before making a comment.

New Comment