Driving Digital

NEC and Drive-In Owners Light Up the Starry Night

"As long as there are sunsets and stars at night, there will always be drive-in movies."
-Rick Cohen

As manufacturers and system integrators/financiers shift into the next higher gear, the deployment of digital cinema is certainly gaining momentum. "Driving the future of the moviegoing experience" is a phrase commonly used, but nowhere is the analogy more appropriate than at the drive-in. On May 17, NEC Corporation of America and their partner Strong Digital, a division of Ballantyne of Omaha, hosted the first-ever ozoner demo of digital-cinema technologies to members of the influential United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA).

"The reason I'm hosting this event is to show that digital cinema is the next step drive-in theatres need to take to deliver quality pictures for their customers," said Rick Cohen, third-generation owner and manager of the 1952 Transit Drive-In in Lockport, New York (transitdrivein.com), now in its consecutive 54th season. "NEC Digital Cinema couldn't be happier participating...as we know how motivated members of the Drive-In Theatre Owners Association are in delivering an excellent entertainment experience," concurred Kurt Schwenk, general manager of NEC Corporation of America's Digital Cinema Division.

The fully sponsored event-featuring dinner, booth tours and hands-on equipment checks, presentations, and questions and answers including John Wolski of NEC's master reseller/partner, Strong Digital Systems-welcomed over 60 UDITOA members and theatre technicians, from as far as Washington State, Southern California, Colorado, Texas and Florida and representing some 45 drive-ins with nearly 80 screens. There are 407 operational, permanently constructed, commercially operated drive-ins with 658 screens in the United States (as of Jan. 6, 2006, per driveintheatre-ownersassociation.org)-a sizeable market and integral part of the exhibition industry, Schwenk believes. "Nostalgia is back in a big way, which actually helps the drive-ins. And personally," he enthuses, "I love drive-ins. I was lucky enough to grow up in a town that had one on either side of it."

The latest connection was made back in February when Terri Westhafer, NEC's exhibitor-relations consultant, gave a presentation at the annual UDITOA convention in Kissimmee, Florida, and then got the green light after the ShoWest 2006 screening of Cars at the NEC projector-equipped Jubilee Theater. "Rick Cohen had some 29 RSVPs within the first 24 hours after sending out a hold-the-date e-mail," Westhafer recalls. "The interest within the drive-in community is tremendous. Screen illumination has been a big problem for them forever."

Installing the digital equipment at the Transit, however, posed none. With a double porthole-the existing glass remaining in place-film platters were removed and the NEC STARUS NC2500S projector set up next to the 35mm projector. "From out of the box and into place ready for final fine-tuning," Westhafer says, it took "about three hours." Takedown after the show was even shorter at roughly 90 minutes, thus allowing for easy seasonal storage of the equipment, another important advantage to drive-ins.

QuVIS technicians were also on hand to add their JPEG2000-enabled cinema player that stored and played Chronicles of Narnia along with some fun and familiar drive-in materials. "It was Rick's idea to get digital transfers made at Filmack Studios of classics like the countdown clock and dancing hot dogs," Westhafer elaborates. He really "wanted to drive the point home that this is going to look so much better. And people were cheering. It's a whole new world, it was so bright."

Other than applying a new coat of flat white paint-Cohen considers this part of regular drive-in maintenance anyway-the Transit's largest of four screens was left to its own merits, all 98 by 41 feet [30 x 12.5 m] of it. "Open-gate" light readings at 70 and 80 feet (21 and 24 meters) along with full-frame were taken from its 216-foot throw (66 m). "The crowd was just amazed when they saw the evenness of the illumination, which is a big part of digital quality," Westhafer observes.

With recent installations at such iconic giants as Clearview Cinemas' Ziegfeld (New York, since Ice Age 2), hardtop screens have seen the NEC light as well. In the case of the equally historic 4,500-seat Fox in Atlanta, the screen measures 55 feet wide (17 m) and at Malco Grandview 17 in Madison, Mississippi, its 72-foot counterpart (22 m) registered 31,000 ANSI lumens. "We had to dial it down to get to the industry standard," Schwenk remembers.

Revving up the lights was more like it at the world premiere of Cars, which utilized 12 digital projectors. A mere nine days after its trailer had played the Transit Drive-In, Disney/Pixar's computer-animated hit debuted on four custom-built 115 by 50-foot screens (36 x 15 m) at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina. Each one featured three synchronized DLP Cinema 2K projectors from manufacturers Barco, Christie and NEC, of course, together throwing a combined 240,000 lumens and 35 trillion colors onto what Texas Instruments called "the largest square-footage delivery of a movie ever."

As for the number of projectors used for each of those screens, Schwenk explains that one was a backup and three were overlaid to gain the necessary screen illumination. "'We'll do three,' we told them, 'but with this projector you really only need two.'" By comparison, no less than four projectors were needed at Disney's previous film-based outdoor premieres and "interlocked the way the old-fashioned 3D was done." Easily achieving "the industry-required standard of 14 foot lamberts" at a contrast ratio of 2000:1, Schwenk calls NEC STARUS NC2500S "the world's brightest DLP Cinema projector for large-sized screens 49 feet [15 meters] wide or larger."

That level of brightness is especially important to drive-ins. Ambient light from highways, roads and surrounding businesses influences image contrast, Cohen explains, "causing a 'washout' by reducing the contrast in the darker scenes." Not to mention that full moon which otherwise goes so well with teenage-werewolf movies, or the forces of nature best addressed in one of Cohen's favorite sayings: "Please don't let it rain this weekend."

Several days leading up to the demonstration, the East Coast was drenched with rain, nonstop. "It was pouring when I got there," says Westhafer, who had been monitoring the bad news on weather.com, "but at seven p.m. it stopped and the rain didn't resume until some time during the night. God loves digital cinema," she laughs. Quickly, she adds, "Well, I don't know about all digital cinema, but certainly NEC Digital Cinema."

Looking at the responses and questions from attendees, Westhafer may have a point. Host Cohen, for instance, really would have liked to keep the projector; once financing has been worked out, he intends to go digital. Several UDITOA members have joined the D-Cinema Buying Group (see story in this issue) and NEC is a "strategic alliance partner" in the Technicolor Digital Cinema plans (FJI May 2006).

"Many of my colleagues, myself included, have seen the limitations of film, as it can handle only so much light before it burns up," Cohen told NEC. "The digital-cinema technology behind its powerful STARUS NC2500S projectors allows drive-ins to show movies countless times without degradation and with brightness that can overcome outdoor theatre elements."

And who knows? With the brighter screen, maybe shows could even start a little earlier, despite that darn daylight-savings time.