Butler County’s local drive-in taking the digital plunge
Sheila McLaughlin reports:
Todd Chancey had to make an expensive choice.
He could spend $70,000 to keep his slice of Americana alive in a technological world. Or he could let the big screen at Holiday Auto Theatre in Butler County’s Hanover Township go dark.
In a time when 35-millimeter film is quickly on its way out – a film industry move that many say jeopardizes the drive-in theater industry across the country – drive-ins such as Holiday Auto Theatre, one of two surviving drive-ins in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, are literally facing a do-or-die moment.Time is running out. People in the drive-in industry expect film distributors to stop producing 35mm prints of new films this year.
Chancey took the plunge. He and his business partner invested in digital projection equipment and began showing digital films this month at Holiday Auto Theatre. Debi Brooks did the same thing at her Starlite Drive-in in Amelia (Clermont County) in March.
“Film is going away. All theaters, indoor and out, have to convert. If you can’t front the money, you either have to close or sell,” Chancey said. “It wasn’t an option. We love what we did and we were going to make it happen no matter what.”
Brooks has owned the Starlight for about 20 years. Chancey, an Orlando native who lives a mile from his drive-in, and his business partner, Mark Althoetmar, who lives in California, bought the Holiday Auto Theatre for more than $600,000 six years ago. The drive-in has been operating since September 1948.
“It was very expensive for Todd and I to go from reel-to-reel to digital projection especially when you’re a seasonal business,” Brooks said. “It is a forced situation but at the same time, it’s a very welcome technology. The movies are sharper and have a clearer picture.”
The switch for digital has been talked about for at least seven years in the cinema industry. Some say the drive-ins have been left behind.
Industry incentives for digital equipment wasn’t available to drive-in owners until February, although it was available to indoor theaters for years, said D. Edward Vogel, administrative secretary United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association.
A spokeswoman for Cinedigm, the Los Angeles-based company handling rebate incentives to help drive-ins buy equipment, said only 55 drive-ins in the country have signed the agreements and 30 of them have installed the equipment. That’s 15 percent of the 357 drive-ins that Vogel’s organization says remain open across the country.
But that doesn’t mean the other drive-ins will be shuttered. Some owners, such as Chancey and Brooks, are making the investment on their own.
“Drive-in theater is the last of of the mom and pop, the last of the small business backbone. Major distributors want no part of it because it’s far too risky. It depends on the weather,” said Vogel, a University of Cincinnati grad who owns Bengies Drive-in in Middle River, Md.
He’s also joined the digital trend.
“Sometime this year, we’re going to see the beginning of the end. The studios will begin to announce (movies) will only be available on digital. I can almost bet you,” Vogel said.
This month marks the 80th anniversary of the first drive-in theater in the United States. Richard Hollingshead, a movie fan and auto products salesman, opened the first open-air theater in Camden, N.J. on June 6, 1933.
Twenty-five years later, the drive-in bug caught on and peaked with more than 4,000 open-air theaters operating across the country.
However, the growth of indoor theaters that offered first-run movies caused thousands of drive-ins to close over the years, leaving less than 600 drive-ins operating by 1995. That number has dwindled to 357 as of March, 2013, according to the United Drive-ins Theatre Owners Association.
Ohio, with 29 existing drive-ins, ranks second behind Pennsylvania, which has 30 drive-ins, the organization said.
Locally, people still love them. Chancey, who began showing “The Hangover III” and “Man of Steel” last week, was expecting crowds of 1,000 people for weekend showings.
Friends Caitlyn Bellamy and Jake Weaver from Trenton sat in lawn chairs outside their car the day before when the first-run movies premiered.
Bellamy started going to Holiday Auto Theatre two years ago with her mother. She’s since returned six to seven times a year.
“I love it. I love getting to sit out here. It’s a good view. And you don’t have to sit in stuffy theaters next to people you don’t like,” she said.
Not to mention to price, said Andrew Schnee, 21, of Colerain Township. At Holiday, adults pay $8.50 to get through the gate. Kids cost $5.
“It’s a good price for two movies,” Schnee said.
“You can all just pack in together and go. It’s a good price for a whole family to go. It’s being outside,” added Kayla Meyer, 19, of West Chester Township.
Chancey and Brooks say those gate fees don’t them make money. That comes from snack bar sales.
Chancey, who spent many years in management at Disney World before buying Holiday Auto Theatre, said he upgraded the snack bar over the years to include Nathan’s hotdogs, higher-grade pizza products and Starbuck’s coffee to offer his patrons higher-end choices.
Unlike Brooks, who operates seasonally, Chancey stays open year-round offering special theme weekends during the fall and winter, including Halloween, family-oriented New Year’s and classic movie events.
When the “Dark Knight’’ premiered, Chancey had a man dressed as Batman parachute into the drive-in’s lot. He hires face painters and balloon artists for kids’ events. He bought a Spyder carnival ride that he plans to install next year.
“It’s not just show and tell,” Chancey said. “It’s a full experience. It’s making sure that everone is safe and that they are having a good time.”