The great digital outdoors: Drive-ins see the light by upgrading technology


“The coming months will see many of our theatres taking the steps needed to move them into the digital age,” said John Vincent, Jr., president of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association (, back in February during their 12th annual convention and trade show in Kissimmee, Florida. “Our members are fully invested in doing everything they can to enhance our patrons’ experience when they visit our theatres.”

With the ozoner season in full bloom across the country—and in Canada, of course—Film Journal International got into the passenger seat with some key players who are driving the digital conversion of what Vincent rightly calls “a uniquely American institution” and “outstanding value in family entertainment.”

As the owner and operator of a soft- and hardtop theatre combination in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Vincent is in the process of converting to digital projection. Located in a tourist area of Cape Cod, the Wellfleet Cinemas are “busy seven nights a week,” so that shutting down for installation is not an option for him during the peak summer season. In general, “financing the transition is probably the biggest challenge for any independent theatre owner,” he feels. Technically, however, “of every conversion that I know of in the drive-in space—and there have been about 40 to 50 screens—not one has reported back that they have a worse picture than with 35mm film. Everyone says that the image has been substantially better.”

Cases in point are Harold Spears, proprietor of the Silver Moon, Lakeland and Joy-Lan, Dade City drive-ins in sunny Florida; and John M. Cumins, district manager at B&B Theatres. “I am very happy that we switched and very satisfied with the whole situation,” Spears confirms. Since November 2011, both screens at the Silver Moon have been running on Christie, “producing the desired results in picture quality.”

Spears credits preliminary site surveys and the resulting equipment specs to have assured the transition. “I had the capital available for the conversion,” he humbly responds when asked about the financial implications. Even though he’s enrolled in Christie’s virtual-print-fee reimbursement program, Spears will have to see about the Joy-Lan, he admits. “It’s a very marginal situation of a single-screen drive-in in a small community. I’m just not sure if it justifies the expense at this time. We’ll make that decision down the road.” For now, at least, “we haven’t had any problem getting 35mm there.”

Film prints are no longer needed at any of the 29 locations of the 88-year-old B&B circuit, Cumins reports. The L-shaped booth at their Moberly Five & Drive in Moberly, Missouri, serves patrons on plush seats inside and in their cars outside at the same time. Using Christie digital projectors for some six months has been “amazing,” he says. “The picture quality and brightness are beyond anybody’s expectations. It is such a long, long throw to get it out there on the drive-in screen. We are actually able now to start pictures a little bit earlier, closer to dusk, because the image is so much brighter. There are no regrets whatsoever!” In both locations the public has noticed the difference as well. “We’ve had some very good feedback,” Cumins confirms. “If you’ve been to the drive-in before and you are coming back, you will really notice the difference in our digital presentation.”

Another happy digital driver is Walt Effinger, Terri Westhafer, director of digital-cinema business development at Barco, assures us about the April installation at his Skyview Drive-In in Lancaster, Ohio. Going back some seven years, Westhafer and the former UDITOA president and numerous association members have been driving digital hard. By her own admission, Westhafer is a big fan. “I fondly recall my own days as a customer at the local ‘passion pits,’” she laughs. “I’m sure I am dating myself even using that term.” Having frequented drive-ins “well into the last few decades, when they became very difficult to find,” Westhafer saw an opportunity “to resuscitate them” when she joined the theatrical business. “As much as I enjoyed drive-ins,” she confesses, “I never recalled them having the most outstanding presentations.”

As for the reasons, “film was simply inadequate to meet the large-screen requirements of drive-ins,” she believes. “Hot spots and poor illumination, plus jump-and-weave inherent in sprocket-driven film projectors, made for many blights on the screens. In addition to extraordinary screen sizes—many in excess of 90 feet in width [27 m], they are dealing with throw distances of 300-plus feet [90 m], frequently twice that. They had antiquated equipment ensconced in old, often ramshackle boxes that barely qualified as projection booths situated in dirt fields and had to deal with all sorts of weather conditions, including grim ambient light problems.”

So when Effinger told her that “the drive-ins were in danger of going the way of the eight-track player if they weren’t able to understand, afford and walk the path toward digital projection,” it became her call to action. “I put together a presentation for them that explained the essential differences between film and digital, feeling that my Kodak background, coupled with my decision to…fully embrace digital, qualified me to do so.” The response was overwhelming, Westhafer says, and subsequently led to the first-ever digital projection demo at a drive-in with NEC and Strong Digital, which were the brightest projectors at the time.

After hosting this historic, May 17, 2006 event at his Transit Drive-In in Lockport, NY (FJI September 2006), owner Rick Cohen transitioned to digital with Barco in March. But in time for the season, and to celebrate the drive-in’s 60th anniversary, he also completely overhauled the four-screen ozoner. (A detailed profile will follow in a future issue.) “The customers love it,” Cohen declares. “We’re doubling, if not tripling, the light on the screen from 35mm. With such a large screen at the drive-in, it is really challenging. On our 30-by-60 screen, we are at 14 foot lamberts and above,” he enthuses. “We are actually turning down the bulb so we don’t over-light the smaller screens. On our 100-foot wide screen [30 m], we’re still not quite at 14 foot lamberts yet.”

He hopes that “laser projection might get us there, two or three years down the road.” Going back to the historic demo, “the reason why I even set up the invitation with Terri was that I wanted to make sure that the manufacturers and the studios had the drive-ins on the radar. And that fellow drive-in operators would become more familiar with digital and begin taking it seriously. You could see it coming down the pike and we wanted to see how it looked and do whatever we could to make it work the best for us.”

Lee Burgess also saw it coming for his Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre, giving the town of Jefferson Wisconsin’s first digital drive-in. “I have done a lot of research over the past five to seven years [in preparation for the digital switch],” he recalls, even becoming a Barco-certified service engineer in the process. Burgess admits that the investment looming large helped him to “alter my business policies to be more profitable.” One such change encompassed “no longer allowing people to bring in their own food and drink or alcohol and making a big picnic out of going to the drive-in.” Instead of this “business model in the old days,” the Highway’s “no carry-in policy, like indoor theatres” has brought profit margins up. “I began saving money every year for this eventual financial outlay.” By February 2011, the money had come together and he financed the conversion “totally out of my own pocket.” After attending the UDITOA Convention that year, he recalls saying, “Why wait? Let’s do it.”

After “very seriously and very thoroughly researching all the agreements and VPF deals,” Burgess decided to make do without them. “For a single-screen independent theatre, going with virtual print fees didn’t make any sense.” He further found that as a seasonal operator, “I couldn’t really get enough revenue back to justify the pain-in-the-neck hassle of all the bureaucratic stuff and paperwork involved.” With studios always pressuring to hold movies longer and longer to justify their investment in a 35mm print, Burgess thought he might encounter a similar argument were the Highway to receive VPF payments. Since he buys and books films himself, this kind of financial freedom should give him some additional leverage when negotiating. Digital prints, he finds, will also alleviate the problem of limited-print runs that plagued independents in the celluloid days. “Many titles still have a corporate policy of three or four-week runs, but I am prepared to walk away as I only have a single screen.” Albeit with spaces for some 600 cars.

Wellfleet’s John Vincent concurs with Burgess that for a single location, VPFs could indeed be a complex proposition because of the “minimum costs involved,” but he “highly recommends that people take a hard look at the VPFs and see if it makes sense for them. After all, those payments can help operators get financing,” he has observed, “be it from banks or specialized entities.” Nonetheless, “not everybody will be able to make the transition to digital,” he fears. “And that is not unique to drive-ins. Even though they are a bit more exasperated because, for the most part, they are seasonal… It’s a little more challenging to generate the revenue necessary to pay for the equipment.”

Single, multi or mega, seasonal or year-round, just like any other theatre “Christie invites drive-ins to examine the benefits of the programs that we have established to help them in the conversion to make sure that they are ready,” states Kati Bujna, applied marketing manager at Christie Digital Systems. The company has “designed the Christie VPF model to give drive-in theatre owners all the decision-making control over any aspects of their digital conversion, from configuration and financing to installation and additional service support.” Christie will also administer VPF payment and management so that participating exhibitors enjoy “cost recovery with minimum reporting requirements,” at the same time making sure that “we get them up and running really quickly” in the first place. In addition to making balance sheets look better, “leasing allows theatre owners to minimize the upfront cash required to convert and then collect VPF revenue over time to pay for the ongoing lease costs,” she explains. “Basically, they can conserve cash and use Other People’s Money to convert. Some leasing companies are well-versed in the VPF business model and can move quickly to approval based on known success with similar financing arrangements and payback.”

While “the drive-in market is different in general from the hard-tops,” Bujna has observed that “owners in both segments are really passionate about delivering the best possible experience to their audience. The longer throw distance represents a particular challenge,” she says of one technical aspect, “and getting enough light on their large outdoor screens given the surrounding ambient lighting.” Relaying feedback from Christie customers like Big Sky Drive-In, the first to be digitally equipped in Texas, “There have been no issues and challenges providing the brightest and highest-quality image to cover their screens.” Three-screen owner Sam Kirkland, Bujna says, is “absolutely wowed at the difference that the Christie digital projectors have provided.” (For more information check out this video)

This being our ShowCanada edition and with Christie hailing from Kitchener, Ontario, the last stop on our digital drive leads us to the four drive-ins of Toronto-based Premier Operating Corporation, which include the highest-grossing in the country ( “It’s terrific” are Brian Allen’s first words, despite calling himself been a die-hard proponent of film on celluloid. “I am someone who really wanted to stay with 35mm.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, since the Allen family has owned and operated movie theatres since before the 1920s ( “We were a bit nervous about it,” he admits, “until a couple of tests back in January and February really clinched it for me. We created a split screen with cardboard down in the middle and showed similar trailers on 35mm and digital side-by-side…that totally blew me away. Not only are the blacks and the whites so much better than with 35mm,” but so is the digital sound. “It feels like surround sound in the car because you are getting a clearer, more unfettered sound… It is almost like a DTS simulation. And the people are loving it.” One of his customers even had a Jurassic Park-type moment, he recalls. “They thought someone was banging at the back of their car, but it was really the sound in the movie.”

“We always had pretty good 35mm,” Allen continues, “but there was always that mythology over the past decades that you couldn’t really see all the details on the drive-in screen. With digital, the amazing sharpness now takes away any of that myth of an inferior picture at the drive-ins. People think of drive-ins as yesteryear, so the very idea of digital at the drive-in is something they wouldn’t necessarily expect. Putting modern technology into an old-fashioned setting is kind of a very neat idea because of the juxtaposition of it,” he opines. “My biggest concern—and I am not a technology guy—is not short-term, but the overall sustainability of the equipment. Some of these Super Simplex projectors that we took out are 60, 70 years old. Yes, they have been upgraded, lamp houses and parts replaced, but the basic moving parts are the same. That’s pretty incredible. Will digital projection be around in another 60 years? Probably not. If I can get 15, 20 years, I’d be delighted.”

It is a true testament to Allen’s enthusiasm—and that of his equally dedicated fellow drivers—that he does even not question whether the drive-ins themselves will still be around. “As long as there are sunsets and stars at night, there will always be drive-in movies,” the Transit’s Rick Cohen is known to say. “Drive-ins are quintessential,” Terri Westhafer agrees with all. “They are one of the last bastions of a semi-rural type of family entertainment that combines great storytelling with a cozy family ambiance in a comfortable environment. When you present perfect images on a huge screen, that warmth, camaraderie and relaxation are enhanced dramatically.”