Fresh-Air Fund: Honda-sponsored competition provides digital projectors to struggling outdoor theatres
“I thought it might be a bunch of baloney.” Andy Wetzel, owner of the Stateline Drive-In in Elizabethton, TN, was skeptical when a representative from Honda sent him an e-mail early this past summer. So was Ry Russell, owner of the Saco Drive-In in Saco, ME. Russell’s invitation to participate in Honda’s Project Drive-In, a crowd-funding initiative for drive-in theatres struggling to afford costly and increasingly necessary digital equipment, arrived via phone call. “Yeah, sure,” Russell said to the man explaining the project’s details. “Do you want my Social Security card, my credit card info, too?”
Luckily for Wetzel, Russell and their customers, it didn’t take long for the owners to bury their doubts. Once each did his research and realized he wasn’t being taken for a shmuck, they both agreed to participate in the automaker’s outreach program. Beginning August 9, they and hundreds of other drive-in workers across the country began vying for the nation’s support. The premise of Honda’s Project Drive-In was simple: The company would set up a website, www.projectdrivein.com, where patrons and fans could vote for their favorite drive-in. The five theatres with the most votes amassed by Sept. 9 would be given a Christie digital projector. More than a piece of fancy new hardware, for over half the country’s drive-in theatres a digital projector continues to mean the difference between operating business as usual, and closing their gates—many of which have swung open for over half a century—for good.
“I realized then that this was going to be probably my only chance to stay open,” recalls Wetzel. “We don’t have the kind of operating costs to be able to take on that kind of [digital] upgrade… If we didn’t do something with Project Drive-In, we were going to have to end up closing the door.”
“We like to do good in the communities in which we’re doing business,” says Alicia Jones, Honda and Acura’s social-marketing manager. “Originally, the idea was to help out one drive-in theatre that was near one of our manufacturing facilities.”
With outposts across the country—“in Ohio, Atlanta, Indiana,” Jones lists—choosing a single site wasn’t easy. Then there was the unexpectedly widespread scope of the film-to-digital conversion trouble. As Honda considered logistics, they became aware of the larger struggle within, and in some cases whittling down, the drive-in community.
“We realized that this digital conversion was coming, and that this was actually a greater issue that was going to be affecting all drive-ins,” says Jones. Most digital projectors cost roughly $75,000, an impossibly steep ask for many small-town theatres. The recent paucity of film, now that the movie industry has shifted to digital in earnest, has only compounded the difficulty by increasing the need for product.
Having set out to help, Honda decided it made better, certainly more charitable sense to assist multiple drive-in theatres with the expensive crossover. After all, “who better to do it than a car company?” Jones asks.
It was back in 1933 when the first drive-in theatre opened, and, true to the medium, its creation tale is appropriately entertaining. As the story goes, Richard Hollingshead of Camden, NJ, erected the premier outdoor viewing facility in his backyard. His mother was endowed with an ample love of food and movies, with the one unfortunately precluding her enjoyment of the other. Mrs. Hollingshead couldn’t fit in an indoor movie-theatre seat. Buoyed by filial love and a creative streak, her son invented an ingenious solution: Sit Mother comfortably in a car, tie a sheet between two trees in front of the car, and place a projector on the hood of the car to project the picture onto the sheet. That was in 1928. Five years later, Hollingshead’s drive-in theatre was open for business.
“The bulk of our business really comes from our families,” says Pam Scott, owner of the Graham Drive-In in Graham, TX, and one of Project Drive-In’s five initial winners. Her fellow drive-in workers, from Vermont to Utah to Tennessee, agree. “If I had to give an overall demographic, it’s usually people in their 20s or their 30s bringing their kids. The families come out together,” notes Adam Gerhard, one of the program’s participants and owner of the Randall Drive-In in Bethel, VT. “I’ve noticed it’s basically younger families,” says Motor Vu owner Brent Coleman, whose theatre is located in Ogden, UT. Wetzel admits his crowd trends “across the board,” but it’s a spectrum that includes “young families, definitely.”
From its early lore of Son giving the gift of movies to Mother, the American drive-in has become synonymous with families and family entertainment (though film critic, author and professor Leonard Maltin would have us remember the drive-in’s other, seedier reputation: that of teenage “passion pit”). Many of today’s drive-in owners take their role as proprietors of community establishments very seriously. They’re the providers of a neighborly service, opening a separate avenue for those families looking to enjoy a night out without squandering a week’s worth of gas money.
“A family of four, five or six, you’re going to be spending between $60 and $80 just on tickets to go to the movie theatre,” observes Russell. “Well, now you can spend $15” at the drive-in, which is the flat rate his theatre charges per car. Other drive-ins sell their tickets using the indoor cinema standard of a per-person rate, offering separate adult and child prices, although no individual fee exceeds $8. Not to mention, at Russell’s Saco Drive-In, families can enjoy “super-reasonable concession stand prices, with our most expensive item only being $5.”
“We can provide a good family product to people that’s not just killing them to come to a movie,” Coleman declares. Above and beyond any fiscal considerations, Coleman also understands the drive-in’s ability to cater to the needs of parents with small children. The former “can bring their kids and kids can make noise,” he says. “Kids can be kids.” He draws a distinction between drive-in theatres and indoor or hardtop establishments by explaining “you can’t do that”—march your noisy brood through the hushed atmosphere of a cinema—“cause you’re going to disturb everybody around you.”
Far from being a source of irritation, children are welcomed at the drive-in. “There’s nothing more contagious than watching something like Cars, and you just hear the laughter of 600 kids all at once,” says Russell. It’s rare for Scott and her co-owners to screen anything rated higher than PG-13 at Graham Drive-In—and only then as the second feature, the one that plays after enough time has elapsed for the littlest ones to have fallen asleep.
Maltin explains outdoor theatres’ appeal—and what often doubles as their drawback—most concisely, describing how his attitude changed as he grew older and, that dreaded malady to which Peter Pan vowed never to succumb, more serious. “When I became the film buff, I no longer wanted to see films that way,” he says of watching movies at a drive-in. “Now I was interested in the film, not the experience.”
An “experience” is precisely what drive-ins seek to offer: lawn chairs, open trunks, stars, pajamas, and popcorn kernels reconstituting the pattern on your blankets. “For me, it’s just the whole experience,” Gerhard says. “It’s [reminiscent of] a simpler time, it’s a place where families can get together and interact outside.” Drive-in theatres’ lack of pretension, emphasis on popular fare and self-identification as community gathering spaces tap into core American ideals of back-to-basics rural living. Interestingly, they recall an era many of the young parents who constitute a significant portion of today’s drive-in audience never knew. They’re a “piece of Americana,” as Gerhard observes—Americana in the tradition of Norman Rockwell, suffused with that same haze of clean, neat, dinner-table nostalgia.
It was a friend of Maltin’s who first e-mailed him a link to the Project Drive-In website late in the summer. As he had the “same kind of nostalgic, rose-colored remembrances that a lot of other people have” when they think of drive-ins, he wrote a brief blog post about the project, encouraging his readers to vote. After his assistant sent the piece to Honda, the company’s representatives asked Maltin if he would like to become personally involved.
“It was a morning’s activity,” Maltin says of the few hours he spent acting as Project Drive-In’s official Twitter auctioneer. On Sept. 12, three days after voting was supposed to have closed, Honda hosted an online auction to help raise money for the Project Drive-In: Save the Drive-In Fund, which was being hosted on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo.
Part of the winners’ package for the five as yet unnamed drive-in theatres included a free screening of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, which is why many of the items up for auction were (naturally) kid-friendly promotional tie-ins: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 plush toys, a poster, tickets to the film’s premiere and a tour of the Sony Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation studio lots. There were also Disneyland tickets, Aquarium of the Pacific tickets, items signed by Maroon 5, and a private suite at an October Paramore concert up for grabs.
Mostly, Maltin “just did some exhortations” and “shot some vines” (referring to Twitter’s video service) for promotional purposes. “It was all very simple,” he says. “I worked with some very nice people.”
It soon became clear just how nice Maltin’s contacts were. Five days after the critic lent his name and Twitter wit to the auction, Honda revealed they would be dipping a little further into their drive-in fund. In a press release dated Sept. 16, Honda announced their intention to help several more theatres: “Based on the overwhelming response from fans and communities across the country for Project Drive-In, Honda is adding four more digital projectors to its national effort to save drive-ins.”
By Sept. 27, as many drive-ins prepared to close for the season, Honda had ensured nine theatres would reopen for business come spring. These drive-ins included Russell’s Saco, Scott’s Graham and Wetzel’s Stateline drive-ins, as well as theatres in Michigan, Oregon, Florida, South Carolina, Missouri and Illinois. The winners were over the moon, only re-entering the stratosphere to begin preparing for their new digital equipment.
Jones describes how she and several Honda representatives broke the news to the first five winners. Looking to capture their responses at the moment of realization, Jones dressed up as a reporter and pretended she was in town filming a piece on drive-in theatres. When the cameras began rolling, she dropped the bit, and revealed who she was. Many of the winners’ reactions have been edited together into a video on projectdrivein.com. You can watch Russell burst into tears and Scott jump into the arms of her husband and her business partner. Jones says the two women “just screamed and jumped up and down and hugged each other. It was really heartwarming to see.”
As one of the four winners of the second round of Project Drive-In, Wetzel didn’t receive a personal visit, but a phone call. In many ways, this provided the perfect opportunity for the kind of cinematic anecdote on which such human-interest stories turn. After answering the call from California (at first, he wasn’t sure if it was one of his West Coast army buddies pulling his leg), Wetzel contacted his wife at her job at the local elementary school. She began crying and told her co-workers, who then announced the news over the school’s loudspeaker—many of the students had voted for the town institution. “When they announced it, the whole school was just cheering and jumping up and down,” Wetzel recalls. “It was pretty cool.”
Thanks to Project Drive-In, there are nine theatres that have been given the gift of sustainability. They’ll continue to operate and act as seasonal community hubs for years to come, perhaps reaching their 100 or 150th anniversaries, if many of their owners have anything to say about it.
There are, however, still hundreds of drive-in theatres struggling to afford digital equipment. And not everyone is thrilled with the outcome of Honda’s program.
“Honda made it a popularity contest and allowed every drive-in to participate, resulting in the theatres with large fan bases [winning],” says Gerhard, one of the participants whose theatre was not chosen. While acknowledging the benefits of Project Drive-In, John Vincent, Jr., president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, agrees. “What Honda did was a good thing… The only worry I had was, there was no randomness to the contest. It was based on online voting, which can be manipulated and also dependent on what your audience base is,” he contends. “I wish there was at least some kind of lottery, [that] some of the projectors were awarded on a lottery basis. It would have been at least fair, I think.”
Gerhard goes on to posit that it wouldn’t take much for a large company or group of companies to save the rest of the country’s drive-ins. He estimates it would cost perhaps six million dollars to convert the nation’s remaining theatres, should each location be awarded at least one digital projector. In this instance, Vincent demurs. Though the president’s calculations are based on a per-screen, rather than per-theatre, basis, his estimation is significantly higher than Gerhard’s. “We probably have 400 screens to go,” he says, “times $75,000 per screen. I’d come up with $30 million.”
Financial anxieties continue to affect almost every tier of drive-in theatre. Even those that have successfully converted, through Project Drive-In or via personal means, aren’t yet facing a cloudless horizon.
Wetzel is looking forward to his new digital projector (“It’s going to save time, there’s no doubt about that”), though “what scares me more than anything is the upkeep and maintaining...the cost of running digital versus 35mm is quite a bit more expensive.” He ticks off the additional costs of Internet, an upgraded power system, filters and bulbs, not to mention, “you’re going to be changing your film room into a computer room,” a transition that carries its own set of modern worries. “They tell me I can start the digital projector from my home computer, so no one even needs to be up there [at the theatre] now.” If, in the past, something happened to his film projectors, “I was able to work on them. Now, if something happens, I can’t touch that machine… You gotta call a tech. They don’t let you touch them. We don’t put our hands on it.”
Coleman, who managed to obtain his digital equipment by means of a bank loan and the help of his brother, Bruce Coleman, executive VP of Brenden Theatres, mentions external threats from the obvious: the great outdoors. “With the digital, you’ve got all these environmental things you’ve got to be aware of,” he says, citing the need to maintain stable temperatures in the room where you keep your projector, tacking on air-conditioning to Wetzel’s list of expenses.
On a less pragmatic though perhaps no less important note to drive-in enthusiasts, the vast majority of whom operate their theatres as second jobs over and above their full-time careers, nostalgia also continues to hold sway. The tactile act of threading film and the operation of equipment that’s been both the heart and pulse of drive-ins, often since their first screenings, have proven difficult to leave behind. “It’s sure hard to see them take away equipment that’s been here since the ’50s. Basically, all they’re worth now is just scrap. I understand the future…but I hate to see the film go,” Coleman laments.
Where does Wetzel plan to keep his film projectors, once progress has made herself at home in his new “computer room”? Well, “that’s a good question. They’re in my basement right now. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them. I’m a little attached to them. I can’t just get rid of them. I couldn’t bring myself to do that.”
“As a traditionalist, the idea of not having a projection booth and a veteran projectionist threading up each reel, working the rewinds between, is bittersweet,” says Maltin.
And yet both the new fees that accompany digital projectors, and the abstract ache that attends the inevitable swapping out of old with new, are still preferable to the trauma of going out of business. In an effort to stave off closures, many drive-in theatres have started banding together. On Sept. 19, a group of workers posted a petition to gopetition.com, asking the three major U.S. automakers, Ford, Chrysler and GM, to make like Honda and help save the remaining unconverted theatres. Gerhard said he thought it was strange that Honda, a foreign company, should have been the organization to help this beloved American institution. Both Maltin and Jones are quick to point out, however, that Project Drive-In is an American Honda initiative. According to Jones, 90% of Honda’s cars are manufactured in North America—hence their idea of doing good where you work.
It remains to be seen whether gopetition will assert itself as a force to be complied with. When asked for comment, Chrysler sent a polite e-mail saying it cannot “fulfill the request of an individual.” They suggested seeking assistance through local charities.
As film goes the way of the printing press (well, not quite yet), it seems unfortunate but likely that many more theatres, hardtop as well as drive-in, will fade their lights to black. “It’s not a unique drive-in issue, of course,” Vincent says of the industry’s digital woes. “The media’s been playing it off like that. Haven’t exactly asked for all the attention, but we’re getting it.”
Not that a small press circus is such a bad thing, as Honda’s nine winners can attest. Hopefully, the ongoing attention will help at least one more drive-in theatre. Although the main contest ended in September, Honda’s Save the Drive-In fund is still open, and www.projectdrivein.com is still live. The deadline has been extended yet again: If enough money is raised by Dec. 31, another digital projector will be awarded to the theatre with the next highest amount of votes.
“I don’t think it has an expiration date,” Maltin says of the modern drive-in. “If there weren’t still support for them by a constituency, by a public constituency, this would all ring hollow. But that’s not the case."