Drive-in theater seeks help in going digital

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Print this page by James Heffernan

The Family Drive-In Theatre on U.S. 11 south of Stephens City is asking patrons to help with the costs of going digital.

The two-screen outdoor theater is one of only 350 or so drive-ins left in the U.S. A favorite of area families since 1956, the theater hopes to raise about $140,000 by next spring for the conversion, says Jim Kopp, owner of Colonial Entertainment Group LLC, which has been leasing the theater from owner Tim Dalke since 2009.

“We have this edict from the studios that if we do not convert to digital by the end of 2013, in effect we’ll be out of business,” Kopp says.

The drive-in’s season runs from April through November. While the big movie theater chains such as Regal, Carmike and AMC get assistance from the studios to help with the transition, the same cost-share program isn’t available to small, independent theaters, Kopp says. In fact, the studios didn’t even consider the prospect of digital drive-ins when they began making the push two years ago, he says.

Kopp estimates it will cost $70,000 to convert each of the theater’s 35mm analog projectors, including the required heating and cooling systems in the booth and an upgraded sound system.

Still, going digital offers real advantages, says Kopp, a retired Library of Congress worker who ran a movie theater in Raleigh, N.C., for six years. “The picture will be so much crisper and clearer, like watching an HDTV,” he says. “We can put twice as much light on the screen as we currently do.”

The conversion also will save time, he says in “building” a movie for projection. Currently, it takes between an hour and an hour and a half to splice together a film from the multiple reels that the studios ship to the theater. With digital, the process will take less than 20 minutes.

In addition, the outdoor theater often receives requests to show classic films that aren’t available in 35mm format anymore, Kopp says. “If I wanted to show ‘American Graffiti,’ for example, at one of my car shows, I could just pay the studio for the rights to the DVD.” Digital also opens up the possibility of putting on concerts or sponsoring video game nights. “There are a lot of good options,” he says.

Like many smaller theaters facing closure, the Stephens City drive-in is taking its case straight to its patrons. Its website includes a button to donate to the campaign and offers suggestions on other ways to help, such as patronizing the concession stand — the business’s primary revenue stream — and purchasing special T-shirts, cups and collectibles. For donations of $15 or more, patrons can even see their name in lights in the form of a special trailer to be shown each night during the 2013 season.

At the end of September, the theater had only raised about $14,300, but Kopp remains optimistic. “We don’t expect the public to come up with [the entire] $140,000,” he says, adding that he is exploring the use of community fundraising websites as well as grants. “Hopefully when we close down [for the season] in November we’ll at least have enough for a down payment on one of those digital projectors in the wintertime. We can hold off on the other if we have to.

“A lot of people love this place,” he says of the drive-in. “We just want to keep it alive.” 

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