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Economy and Business

Ohio theaters make the drive toward digital
Drive-in movie theaters face two choices as movie studios abandon film: a costly switch to digital projection or shutting down

Kabir Bhatia
By year's end, the sound of film sprockets will be a thing of the past at most movie houses -- indoor or out
Courtesy of K. Bhatia/Hannah Morford
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Summer is unofficially over. And as the warm weather recedes, so should, in theory, drive-in movie theaters. But Northeast Ohio’s drive-ins refuse to yield to the cold weather, especially now that they have to pay off big investments in new projectors. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia has more on the critical switch from film to digital.

Ohio theaters make the drive toward digital

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By year's end, the sound of film sprockets will be a thing of the past at most movie houses -- indoor or out. Major studios no longer want to spend money striking prints, shipping out multiple heavy, metal canisters and then storing them when they’re returned. For theater owners, that means less time dealing with scratched frames, splicing reels together or threading film. A feature can now be shipped on a hard drive the size of a dictionary.

A wrinkle in the celluloid
“The equipment we have is about $70,000 per screen.”

Tim Sherman runs the Aut-O-Rama Drive-In in North Ridgeville.

“I have been here, basically, since I was a little kid. The theater was opened by my grandfather in 1965.”

Auto-O-Rama is the pair of giant screens floating in the darkness along the Ohio Turnpike, just west of the exit for Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

Sherman is also vice president of the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, and a certified digital projector installer.

“This is probably the biggest change since the advent of sound. The fact of the matter is: Hollywood is no longer going to be doing film. FujiFilm has recently ceased all film production. Kodak is running, last I heard, at 20 percent capacity.”

Switch to digital, or close down
Sherman says the new equipment has better sound and is a lot brighter. And drive-ins have to buy the brightest, most expensive equipment because they have the longest distance to the biggest screens.

“If you think of a MAGlite flashlight -- where you can adjust the beam – if it’s on a small spot beam it’s real bright. Soon as you spread that out, it gets a
lot  dimmer.“ It’s a hefty investment and it really doesn’t have any way of bringing in any more clientele, for the most part.”

South, to Strasburg
The cost of the investment prompted the Lynn Drive-In to try and win a digital projector. It’s about half the size of the Aut-O-Rama, a field tucked off the main drag in Strasburg, 20 minutes south of Canton along I-77. It opened in 1937, and it’s the second-oldest drive-in in the world.

Honda is sponsoring the Project Drive-In Contest, and will award one projector each to the five drive-ins getting the most votes. The Lynn is the only theater of any kind within a 25-mile radius. Co-owner Rich Reding says he'll still re-open next spring, whether the Lynn gets a second digital projector or not.

“We’ll survive. We’ve been through the '80s, which were really tough on every drive-in when they came out with VCRs and people were just staying home. We’re always on a budget, so we’re used to living lean. Maybe we could make that parking lot into overflow parking for screen one.”

Family affair
The Lynn is Reding’s main source of income. He doesn’t have a day job or off-season gig. He just loves running the theater the way his father and grandfather did, and he proudly shows off snapshots from the past.

“This is my grandfather with the original marquee. That marquee lasted a long time. It just got hit by a truck in the early 90s. Let’s see the date on here is… June of

Today, Reding can’t tell how the Lynn is doing in the digital voting, but he’s glad the contest has at least drawn attention to drive-ins throughout the country.

More first-timers
In recent weeks, new visitors have started popping up.  Ed Bonnett says the experience hasn’t changed since the 1960s, when he was a teenager, "except we used to park in the back."

He came to see “We’re the Millers” on one screen, while sixth-grader Natasha Masters was facing the other way to see Disney’s “Planes.” 

“It’s nice and clean. The movies aren’t all fuzzy and blurry. You actually get to sit outside and enjoy the time with your family instead of sitting inside.”

The Lynn Drive-In is just two years younger than Shankweiler's near Allentown. In fact, Ohio and Pennsylvania have spent years swapping the crown of “State with the Most Drive-Ins” back-and-forth. More than a dozen Pennsylvania theaters are competing in Honda’s Project Drive-In, but in Ohio, just five theaters are looking for a digital bundle-of-joy.

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