The digital transformation has been underway in the film industry for more than a decade because of the better picture and sound quality and the ease of delivery — no more huge reels of film. The time frame isn't clear, but production companies are already phasing out traditional 35 mm film, and it's expected to disappear completely over the next few years.
"We know fewer and fewer prints are being struck," says D. Edward Vogel, who runs the historic Bengies Drive-In in Baltimore and is spokesman for the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
An industry incentive program will reimburse theater owners 80 percent of the cost of conversion over time, Vogel says, but because most drive-ins are small, family-run businesses, it's hard for many to find the money, period. And the reimbursement doesn't cover the tens of thousands of dollars more that many will have to spend renovating projection rooms to create the climate-controlled conditions needed for the high-tech equipment.
It's a dilemma also faced by the nation's small independent theaters, many of them struggling to pay for conversion to digital years after corporate-owned multiplexes already did it.
Darci and Bill Wemple, owners of two drive-ins in upstate New York, hope an online competition will help them with the $225,000 to $250,000 they figure it will cost to switch their three screens. The American Honda Motor Co. is compiling online votes for the nation's favorite drive-ins and is going to pay the digital conversion costs for the top five vote-getters. The Wemples say that if they don't get help, they'll have to consider closing up.
"To make this kind of conversion with three screens is like trying to buy another drive-in all over again," says Darci Wemple, whose El Rancho theater in Palatine Bridge is among dozens of drive-ins featured in the Honda ad promotion.