In the summer of 2011 I got to know one of the greatest little drive-ins in the world, 160 miles southwest of Chicago: the Galva Autovue. Nothing elaborate. Just two outdoor screens planted where a cornfield used to be, surrounded by cornfields. But on a warm and starry night, with a couple of hundred patrons in their cars and dozens of kids running back and forth to the concession hut, "Captain America: The First Avenger" never looked better.
That summer the Autovue, owned and operated by Justin West, was one of many existing drive-ins faced with an expensive decision: join the conversion from old-fashioned 35mm prints to digital projection, at a cost of up to $70,000 per screen, or close up shop and add another ozoner to the casualty list.
I called West the other day for an update, spurred by a recent report that the National Association of Theatre Owners and Cinedigm, suppliers of digital equipment, were trying to make it a bit easier on the little guys faced with that decision. According to NATO, 90 percent of the nation's drive-in owners have yet to go digital. By the end of the year, the studios may well make good on their threat, or their promise, to release no more nuthin' on old-fashioned, projectable film stock.
From the Los Angeles Times: "To address the problem, NATO and Cinedigm have agreed to extend an existing program that uses so-called 'virtual print fees,' paid by studios, to finance the deployment of digital projectors. 'Traditional movie theaters across the nation have embraced the many benefits of digital cinema,' said John Fithian, president of NATO. 'Cinedigm and NATO's collaborative efforts have played a significant role in that transition and we are thrilled to partner with Cinedigm again to bring drive-ins into the digital age.'"
West's response? He hasn't seen the assistance figures yet, but: "I don't want to see my theaters close. So I'm hoping to convert this summer. That's my only option."
Prints of films were getting hard to find last summer, he says. "I remember driving 200 miles round-trip to Muscatine, Iowa, just south of Davenport, to pick up a print of the latest 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid.' And it wasn't that great a film. But it was getting sparse for kids' movies late in the season."
When he converts to digital, West must also build new and air-conditioned projection booths. He notes that for the Autovue, which stays open for four or five months on weekends only, getting first-run movies "on the break" (the week of the nationwide opening) remains a challenge. "Just because you convert to digital doesn't mean you have access to a first-run copy," he says.
Still, says West, rumors indicate the studios will continue striking an old-fashioned print edition or two of the latest "Iron Man" or the newest wannabe blockbuster for archival purposes.
And for various reasons — nostalgia, access to well-liked classics not yet available digitally, stubborn adherence to tradition — West will hang onto his 35mm projection equipment when conversion time comes.
"Even in the last 20, 30 years, formats have come and gone in a heartbeat," he says. "And look at film. Film has remained steady for 100 years."